Constructing a Transmedia Universe: The Case of Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica, transmedia storytelling, transmedia universe, transmedial world, user-generated content

Aino-Kaisa Koistinen
PhD, Title of Docent in Media Culture (University of Turku)
Postdoctoral researcher, Contemporary Culture Studies
Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies
& The School for Resource Wisdom
University of Jyvaskyla

Raine Koskimaa
PhD, Professor of Contemporary Culture Studies
Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies
University of Jyvaskyla

Tanja Välisalo
MA, Doctoral Student in Contemporary Culture Studies
Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies
University of Jyvaskyla

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Koistinen, Anna-Kaisa, Raine Koskimaa, and Tanja Välisalo. 2021. ”Constructing a Transmedia Universe: The Case of Battlestar Galactica”. WiderScreen Ajankohtaista 15.6.2021. http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/ajankohtaista/constructing-a-transmedia-universe-the-case-of-battlestar-galactica/

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In this article, we define a ‘transmedia universe’ as encompassing the complexity of transmedia storytelling, production and consumption. In doing so, we use the popular science fiction television series Battlestar Galactica as a case study, including both the original and reimagined versions of the series and their various intramedia and transmedia, narrative and non-narrative, and diegetic and non-diegetic expansions. Moreover, we look beyond the official productions of the Battlestar Galactica franchise and include, for example, user-generated content within its transmedia universe.


The reimagined version of the American science fiction television series Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009, henceforth the reimagined BSG) has been cited as an example of the growing trend towards transmediality (e.g. Scott 2008; 2010; Jenkins 2011). The reimagined BSG franchise, indeed, offers a wide range of products and media platforms from which to access and enjoy its complex storyworld (understood here as a shared realm in which franchise-specific settings, characters, objects and actions exist; cf. Donald and Austin 2019). These include transmedia expansions that broaden the storyworld via the same medium (in this case, television) as well as expansions created for various mediums. In addition to these, the reimagined BSG is an intriguing example of building a complex storyworld, not only because the television series has spawned multiple transmedia productions but also because the series is in itself a remake of another series, the original Battlestar Galactica (1978–1979, henceforth the original BSG).

The present article tackles this vast range of expansions to investigate how BSG’s transmedia franchise is constructed. We also look beyond the commercial franchise and include, for example, user-generated content. Considering various transmedia expansions created around the original and reimagined BSG series, we suggest the use of the term transmedia universe to encompass the complexity of transmedia production and consumption. Doing so, we build on existing theories on transmedia storytelling and the creation of transmedia worlds and universes.

Transmedia evolution has been studied extensively from the perspective of media economics (Albarran 2013; Bennett et al. 2012; Clarke 2013; Davis 2013; Doyle 2010; Ibrus 2016; Rohn and Ibrus 2018) and political economy (Bolin 2007; Rodriguez-Amat and Sarikakis, 2012), and on the other hand, from the perspective of transmedia storytelling and engagement with fictional content. There are several attempts to conceptualise the fictional aspect of transmedia, such as Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca’s (2004; 2011; 2014) notion of “transmedial worlds”, arguing that one needs to approach transmedia not only as narratives but as “abstract content systems” and worlds. We claim, however, that the diversity of transmedial systems has not yet been adequately addressed, and more importantly, that the financial media production and branding aspects of transmediality have been too strictly separated from the fictional content of transmedia narratives. Therefore, we introduce a definition of transmedia universe that encompasses the complexity of transmedia storytelling, production and consumption.

We are here reconciling the two aforementioned strands of branding or economics and fictional content with the concept of a transmedia universe, which is not limited to the narrative worlds and diegetic contents, but encompasses the production and marketing issues relevant for the franchising, as well as non-diegetic contents, such as toys and collectibles, and also transmedia expressions not controlled by the franchise, such as user-generated content (i.e. fan fiction, fan art or other fan-created materials).[1] Despite Jenkins’ (2006) opening towards fan activity, and studies of fan engagement, fan activities and fan communities connected to transmedia (Vassallo de Lopes 2012; Tosca and Klastrup 2020), transmedia theorising has still not fully incorporated the insights that fandom research could provide. Our definition of transmedia universe provides a unique understanding of user-generated content in all its richness and its relationship to other transmedia contents.

In the following, we will, firstly, situate the BSG transmedia universe in the context of so-called transmedia television. Secondly, we will discuss the concept of transmedia universe in relation to existing transmedia theories, and thirdly, offer a more detailed analysis of the BSG transmedia universe.

Transmedia Television

The relationship between the original and reimagined BSG would be easy to categorise as adaptational rather than transmedial. We nevertheless claim that both series can be situated within the same transmedia universe, and as examples of transmedia television. The original BSG was initially launched in 1978. The narrative begins when robots called “the Cylons” attack human colonies and force the remaining human survivors to flee into space in search of the mythical planet called Earth, which is to be their new home. Their journey is led by a battlestar (i.e. a spaceship) called Galactica, and they continue to be followed by the Cylons who strive to eliminate all humans. In the beginning, the series attracted a fairly large audience, but this success did not last for long, and the series was cancelled just the next year in 1979.[2] However, a spin-off series called Galactica 1980 (1980) saw daylight only a year later. This series takes place a generation later with Earth already found and the first “Galacticans” setting out to explore their new home planet. The series did not reach the success of its predecessor and only ten episodes were made (Booker 2004, 89; Storm 2007, 3).

The reimagined version of BSG started as a miniseries in 2003. Like the original version, the reimagination was a success. It was followed by a continuous series that aired from 2004 to 2009 and received many awards and nominations, not to mention appraisal from critics (Storm 2007, 8; Stoy 2010). The basic premise follows the original series: the miniseries begins with the Cylons attacking human colonies, which forces the surviving humans to scatter into space in search of a new planet to call home—again, the mythical Earth. However, what differentiates the narratives is that in the reimagined version, there has already been a war with the Cylons 40 years before the events of the miniseries. While referring to this past war, the reimagined version portrays Cylons as very similar to those in the original series, and thus, visually situates the original version as the first Cylon war. These references to the original are one of the reasons why the relationship between the original and reimagined BSG can be considered transmedial instead of adaptational.[3]

Marsha Kinder (1991, 1) originally used the term “transmedia” referring to the “supersystem of entertainment, one marked by transmedia intertextuality”, spread over a set of media platforms, like in the case of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In 2006, Henry Jenkins (2013) developed the term “transmedia storytelling, which refers to the systematic unfolding of elements of a story world across multiple media platforms, with each platform making a unique and original contribution to the experience as a whole”. For Jenkins (2011), transmedia storytelling is “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience”. Ideally, transmedia worlds consist of different narratives that clearly impact each other and contribute to the overall story, and the production is controlled by a single creator or creative unit or distributed through licensing (Jenkins 2011).

Following Jenkins’ definition, the relationship between the original and the reimagined BSG would not be transmedial, as the two series do not clearly contribute to the same overall story, nor are they set in the same storyworld (the reimagined franchise does not officially state that the narrative of the new series continues the original version, yet this is implied on occasion) or controlled by a single creative unit. Although we focus on the reimagined BSG and the transmedia expressions created around it, we nevertheless argue that the original BSG and its expansions should not be overlooked when analysing the reimagined BSG as transmedia. Indeed, when one looks at not only these two series but also their various transmedia expressions, the relationship between the two BSG series becomes more complex—and transmedial.

Jenkins’ definition of transmedia storytelling has been criticised in that the transmedia phenomenon seems to be more complex, and transmedia worlds often “fail” to be as unified and coordinated as he suggests they ideally be. For example, both Jason Mittell (2015, 303, 317–318) and Colin B. Harvey (2015, 85–87) note how it may be hard to sustain a coherent storyworld comprising ongoing narratives, such as in serialised television (see also Clarke 2009). Writing on “the phenomenon of transmedia television”, Mittell (2015, 292, 295) argues that Jenkins’ (2011) description of transmedia as a “unified and coordinated entertainment experience” does not fit television (cf. Evans 2011, 33–36). Commercial television’s industrial demands—attracting audiences that are, then, sold to advertisers—dictate that the television show always has to be the core text, making the transmedia experience less “balanced” (Mittell 2015, 294–295). Transmedia extensions serve the function of supporting and strengthening “the core television experience” and sustaining “viewers’ engagement and attention across these periodic gaps” between television episodes and seasons (Mittell 2015, 295; see also Evans 2011, 36–38).

For Mittell (2015, 303), “the constraints of the television industry and the norms of television consumption insist that transmedia extensions from a serial franchise must reward those who partake in them but cannot punish those who do not”. In a similar vein, Suzanne Scott (2013, 46) notes that television series usually serve as the “motherships” that a transmedia story is built around. Furthermore, Carlos Scolari (2009, 598) acknowledges the centrality of television in the transmedia franchise created around the series 24. In this sense, both the original and reimagined versions of the BSG television series are the core texts of their transmedia worlds, making them examples of transmedia television.

The reimagined BSG, especially, offers a wide range of products and media platforms from which to access and enjoy it, including official content (by which we mean those extensions that are officially included in the franchise), as well as unofficial content, such as user-generated transmedia expansions. There are, for instance, webisodes, comic books, novels, games and merchandise. The reimagined BSG also inspired user-generated content in the forms of fanfiction, fan art, fan-made games and blogs. It is noteworthy that the original BSG also spawned an ample amount of transmedia expansions (see Image 1), such as novels, a “storybook” with pictures, a scrapbook, an encyclopaedia, games, comic books, toys and user-generated content. There is also an extensive fan-made online database called Battlestar Wiki that deals with both the original and the reimagined BSG franchise. We consider all of the aforementioned content as part of the BSG transmedia universe (for an overview of the universe, see Table 1).

Image 1. Transmedia extensions created around the original series (San Diego State University, Special Collections, Science Fiction). Picture by Aino-Kaisa Koistinen.

As the transmedia productions created around the original BSG illustrate, selling products related to a television series is not a new phenomenon (see Clarke 2013, 9). However, the 21st century has seen a significant transformation in television, leading to an increase in transmedia productions (Clarke 2013; Evans 2011, 1–8; Mittell 2015, 292–293). As Elizabeth Evans (2011, 1–2) writes, “television is now bigger than TV”, meaning that due to developments in digital technologies, television has expanded onto the Internet and to mobile phones, new platforms on which to engage with televisual narratives. Simone Murray (2005, 417) uses “streamability” to refer to the way media brands “can be translated across formats to create a raft of interrelated products”, thus strengthening the brand. Indeed, streamability has become a central economic strategy for television producers in a time when consumption of television is significantly changing (Clarke 2009, 435; 2013, 4).

The reimagined BSG with its transmedia expansions thus takes part in a larger change in the media landscape: one that is changing the television medium itself. Another thing that enables both BSG series to expand to different media is the science fiction genre, which can be described as building possible worlds that differ from our lived realities. This makes the genre suitable for creating complex transmedia universes that revolve around multiple worlds and are accessed via different platforms (see Harvey 2015, 38, 94–95; Mittell 2015, 311; Roine 2016, 209, 213). Moreover, according to Clarke (2013, 6–8), genre television usually has an active audience that is ready to purchase products related to a given television series. Fantasy and science fiction worlds also allow fans to imagine, for example, parallel worlds in which to situate their own stories (Harvey 2015, 94–97, 186). It is thus no surprise that science fiction and fantasy have established themselves “as dominant modes of transmedia storytelling” (Harvey 2015, 1; see also Mittell 2015, 311). Star Wars, Doctor Who and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe can be given as well-known examples of this “fantastic transmedia” (Harvey 2015, 5, 79). Even though science fiction and fantasy seem to be suitable genres for creating transmedia expressions, series that do not belong to these genres, such as 24 (2001–2010) and Sherlock (2010–present), have also extended their stories on various mediums. That said, given the tendency of both science fiction and television to incorporate transmedial elements, a science fiction television series and the transmedia expansions created around it are together a suitable object of study when examining a transmedia universe.

 Original BSGRe-imagined BSG
Official franchise  
TV series
  • Battlestar Galactica (1978–1979)
  • Galactica 1980 (1980)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2003 miniseries)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009)
Films, spin-offs, webisodes
  • Battlestar Galactica (1978 film)—theatrical release of the pilot episode of the TV series
  • Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack (1979 film) – television film created by re-editing series episodes
  • Battlestar Galactica: Razor (2007 television film)
  • Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (2009 DVD film)
  • Caprica (2009 DVD film)
Novels, novelizations, comics etc.
  • Larson, Glen A., Battlestar Galactica: The Photostory (1979)
  • The Battlestar Galactica Storybook (1979)
  • A series of novelizations published between 1978–1987
  • A series of novels published between 1997–2005
  • Several comics (1978–2019)
  • Carver, Jeffrey A.: Battlestar Galactica (2006)
  • Gardner, Craig Shaw: The Cylon’s Secret (2006)
  • David, Peter: Sagittarius is Bleeding (2007)
  • Harper, Steven: Unity (2007)
  • Several comics (2006–2019)
Non-diegetic materials
  • DVD extras
  • Podcasts
  • DVD extras
Books (non-fiction), magazines
  • Neyland, James: The Official Battlestar Galactica Scrapbook (1978)
  • Encyclopedia Galactica: From the Fleet Library aboard Galactica (1979)
  • Official companion books to the miniseries and seasons 1–3 by David Bassom (2005–2009)
  • Di Justo, Patrick & Grazier, Kevin S.: The Science of Battlestar Galactica (2010)
  • Battlestar Galactica: The Official Magazine (7 issues)
  • Battlestar Galactica Space Alert (1976 electronic game)
  • Cylon Attack (1984 BBC Micro game)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2003 PlayStation 2 / Xbox)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2006 mobile game)
  • Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (2007 tabletop)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2007 Xbox Live Arcade / Microsoft Windows)
  • Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game (2008)
  • Battlestar Galactica Online (2011– browser-based MMO)
  • Battlestar Galactica Deadlock (2017)
Collectibles, toys, merchandise etc.
  • The Battle of Galactica, a theme park ride at Universal Studios, Los Angeles, United States (1979–1992)
  • Costumes, clothes, accessories
  • Models, action figures
  • Toys, e.g. Battlestar Galatica Lasermatc Pistol (Mattel 1978)
    Activity books
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Costumes, clothes
  • Accessories, jewelry
  • Models, action figures
  • Toys
  • Other merchandise, e.g. trading cards
Unauthorized products  
Books (non-fiction), films, journal articles
  • Several unauthorized books
  • Scholarly publications
  • Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming (2009), short film
  • Several unauthorized books
  • Scholarly publications
User-generated content  
  • Fan-made games, e.g. Diaspora
  • Fan-made game mods, e.g. Battlestar Galactica Colonial Wars (a Star Wars: Empire at War: Forces of Corruption mod)
  • Battlestar Galactica role-playing communities in Second Life virtual world
  • Monitor Celestra (Sweden 2013), a live action role-playing game
Creative fan content
  • Fan fiction
  • Fan art
  • Fan videos
Wikis, fan sites

From Transmedia Worlds to Transmedia Universes

Harvey (2015, 87) acknowledges that not all elements of a transmedia franchise are equal, stressing the role of memory in transmedia storytelling. He describes how “transmedia expressions … ‘remember’ other elements in a given transmedia network” in different ways (2015, 2). Thus, what is at play in creating transmedia worlds is how transmedia expressions remember each other, but also the memories of the storyworld they elicit in the audience (Harvey 2015, 3). For Harvey (2015, 91) memory is what discerns transmedia storytelling from adaptations. Linda Hutcheon has defined adaptation as “an extended, deliberate, announced revisitation of a particular work of art” (2013, xiv). Although for Hutcheon (2013, 4), “[r]ecognition and remembrance are part of the pleasure … of adaptation,” Harvey (2015, 91) argues that adaptations typically remember their so-called original versions vertically, meaning that memories travel only from the source material to the adaptation, whereas in transmedia, memories can travel both ways between different transmedia extensions. Reminiscent of Mittell’s arguments on transmedia television, Harvey (2015, 91) nevertheless points out that despite the potential of transmedia storytelling to create horizontal memories that travel between different elements of a transmedia network, memories often tend to travel only from a core text to other transmedia productions.

As the reimagined BSG suggests, the possibility that the original series is the previous Cylon war mentioned in the narrative invites the viewer to consider that both series belong to the same storyworld—making the relationship between these series more complex than a “revisitation” of existing material. In doing so, the reimagined BSG can also be said to remember the original series. Moreover, this remembering evokes the memories of audiences that have seen the original version. The BSG console game (2003) provides an interesting case in bridging the gap between the original and reimagined BSG as it was released prior to the launch of the reimagined series, thus serving as a prequel to it, yet its visuals are based on the original series. This creates a sense of continuity between the two and enables the interpretation that both series represent the same fictional world in different historical phases, which would undermine the adaptation approach towards the reimagined series and its transmedia extensions. Harvey (2015, 9, 79–92) also notes that, in some cases, it can be hard to differentiate adaptations from transmedia, as storyworlds can include materials that are examples of both adaptations and transmedia storytelling.

Although the reimagined BSG series can be interpreted as an adaptation, when examining both the original and reimagined versions in relation to various other intra- and transmedial BSG expansions, we claim that it is more relevant to analyse these series as parts of a broader transmedia universe (cf. Roine 2016, 198–199, 208–213). As we started to map out the complex transmedia productions related to the two BSG series, we also noticed that the transmedia world, or universe, cannot be understood as a unified and coordinated experience. On the contrary, different productions overlap and create conflicting narrative threads that are not necessarily remembered in the core text, not to mention user-generated content spreading outside the corporate-controlled franchise. It is, therefore, relevant to move beyond the concept of transmedia storytelling or franchises to a broader consideration of transmedia universes.

Many scholars have opted for new terms, such as fictional world (Dena 2009), narrative world (Scolari 2009), storyworld and transmedia network (Harvey 2015) to analyse the complexity of the transmedia phenomenon. For instance, Scolari (2009, 586) has analysed “how … new multimodal narrative structures … construct a narrative world”. Scolari is, in a sense, mediating the positions privileging storytelling (emphasising narrative structures) and those promoting transmedia worlds (acknowledging the worlds constructed through narratives). As mentioned above, Klastrup and Tosca (2004, 410) have coined the concept “transmedial world” to encompass the non-narrative aspects of transmediality. We suggest, however, that it is important to also take into account the non-diegetic aspects of transmediality, such as toys, different kinds of user-generated content, deleted scenes, podcasts and documentaries. To include this wider and more heterogeneous spectrum of elements, we use the term transmedia universe.

Louisa Ellen Stein (2016, 65) also draws attention to audiences’ perception of narrative content by describing how official and fan-created texts together form complex transmedia landscapes, “multi-authored transtexts,” but her approach excludes non-narrative content. Jan-Noël Thon (2015) uses the term transmedial universe to describe complex transmedial storyworlds, but his definition excludes user-generated content. Hanna-Riikka Roine (2016, 191–198) acknowledges the role of fan-created content in constructing “the Battlestar Galactica universe”, but her approach differs from ours as it focuses on “the rhetoric of worldbuilding”. Roine’s analysis also centres on audiovisual instalments, leaving out parts of the BSG transmedia universe. Our definition of transmedia universe thus aims to offer a broader understanding of transmedia.

Transmedia expansions have also been understood as paratexts. Booth (2015, 5), when writing about board games based on media texts, prefers to call them “paratexts”, and emphasises paratexts’ importance in helping us to understand the “larger connections between elements of the contemporary media environment”. Mittell (2015, 261) calls non-diegetic materials “orienting paratexts” that orient us towards a storyworld but place us outside the actual core text, making them “distinct from transmedia paratexts that explicitly continue storyworlds across platforms.” We, however, claim that it is necessary to acknowledge non-diegetic content as their own transmedia expansions—thus including them in the concept of transmedia universe. To put it simply, our definition of transmedia universe, therefore, incorporates all the different productions created around the original and reimagined BSG series, both by the official franchises as well as by fans and other users. In this inclusive approach, there is no need to categorise some of the transmedia expressions as paratexts. All expressions, however, may function in a paratextual way, leading the audience from one part of the universe to another.

Transmedia universe is a concept particularly suited for BSG as the series is a reimagination of another series, linking it to the transmedial world of the original. Harvey (2015, 86) suggests that a transmedia storyworld can consist of multiple distinct infra storyworlds, together forming a broader supra storyworld. These infra storyworlds are not necessarily consistent with each other, despite being parts of the same supra storyworld. Building on Harvey, we consider the original BSG and the reimagined version as both constructing their own supra storyworlds, each including their own sets of infra storyworlds (cf. Evans 2011, 27). These two supra storyworlds, together, construct the broader BSG universe (see Figure 1). The concept of transmedia universe is also useful in cases like popular superhero franchises with their several re-launches and mutual fusions, where quite distinct supra storyworlds are brought together (cf. Harvey 2015, 79–92).[4]

Figure 1. The BSG transmedia universe includes expressions created around both the original and the reimagined BSG series, including non-diegetic content.

Closer Look at the Battlestar Galactica Universe

Even though we acknowledge the role of the original BSG franchise in constructing the broader BSG universe, it is not possible to analyse all of these transmedial expressions in one article. Our close analysis, therefore, focuses on the transmedia expansions created around the reimagined version. During the first running of the reimagined BSG series in 2004–2009 (starting with the miniseries of 2003), there were several diegetic transmedia expansions published, including webisodes distributed through the series’ website. The Resistance (2006, series of ten short webisodes) aired between seasons two and three and its events fill in the gap between the narratives of these seasons. It is a “classic” example of a transmedia expansion as defined by Jenkins, with an airing schedule coordinated with the television series and content that provides a “unique and original contribution to the experience as a whole” (Jenkins 2013). Despite this, drawing on Mittell (2015, 316), these webisodes can also be seen only as an example of keeping the viewers engaged with the television series during the break between seasons, and as such, an example of unbalanced transmedia instead of the ideal and balanced transmedia described by Jenkins (2011).

Scolari (2009) is one of the few researchers who has attempted to offer a detailed analysis of how transmedia expansions are used with a specific television series. Scolari (2009, 598, 601) identifies “four strategies for narrative world expansion”. His first strategy, that of “interstitial microstories”, alludes to creating stories that enrich the diegetic world by expanding the period between the seasons, and have a close relationship with the macrostory. The second strategy introduces “parallel stories”, which unfold simultaneously to the macrostory and “may evolve and transform into spin-offs”. The third strategy, “peripheral stories”, consists of stories that can be considered distant satellites of the macrostory and that have a weak relationship to it. Fourth, Scolari identifies the creation of user-generated content platforms like blogs and wikis as the final strategy of expanding a narrative world.

Applying Scolari’s strategies to the narrative transmedia expansions of the reimagined BSG, we noticed that all of these strategies are present in the BSG transmedia universe, but they exclude non-diegetic content as well as a variety of diegetic expansions such as, what we would call, alternative stories. For example, in the reimagined BSG episodes 11 and 12 of season 2, “Resurrection Ship” parts one and two are about destroying a Cylon ship that serves as a station at which killed Cylons are reanimated. The comic series volume one (Ship), on the other hand, describes how the Galactica finds a destroyed colonial battlestar on which dead human characters are miraculously resurrected back to life—thus giving a wholly different meaning to the concept of the “resurrection ship”. The unbalanced nature of the BSG transmedia universe is evident in the way these events are not remembered in the core television series (cf. Harvey 2015, 91). Thus, these expansions provide what are essentially alternative stories, uniquely broadening the transmedia universe in comparison to Scolari’s strategies. The alternative stories are not necessarily contradictory with the series, but they are clearly incompatible with it, in that it is unlikely that events as miraculous as the resurrection of humans in the comic series would not be referred to in the television series. The BSG Board Game (see Image 3) is, in fact, created around the idea of alternative stories. The game proceeds through various crises (water shortage, fuel shortage, explosion in the fleet, etc.) with successive rounds of the game occasionally producing relatively coherent “episodes”. In a sense, the BSG Board Game is a permutational generator of alternative episodes in the BSG universe.

Image 2. Playing the BSG Board Game. Picture by Raine Koskimaa.

Another type of expansion left out of Scolari’s strategies is one introducing new themes to the transmedia universe. For example, The Face of the Enemy webisodes, as well as the spin-off TV film Razor, include homosexuality, previously all but absent from the BSG transmedia universe. Transmedia productions may thus enable the inclusion of themes that the producers are somehow unable to incorporate in the core text. However, it is important to note that the homosexuality of the characters that are “outed” in Razor and The Face of the Enemy is not remembered in the reimagined BSG (see also Scott 2011, 187). In this sense, these thematic expansions are irrelevant to the core text. Regardless, for LGBTQI+ audiences (or any audiences who wish to see non-heteronormative sexualities represented on television), these transmedia expressions may be important for engagement with the core text as well.[5] In unofficial transmedia products, thematic expansions are typical of fanfiction stories. While this user-generated content does not “officially” expand the narrative of BSG in the sense that it would be accepted as part of the franchise, it can be meaningful for fans and their interpretation of the BSG transmedia universe (see also Hellekson and Busse 2006, 7).

New, alternative events, characters and themes are not uncommon for transmedia. Harvey (2015, 86) acknowledges the possibility of incoherence between infra storyworlds. Similarly, we see transmedia universes as flexible and contradictory. Mittell (2015, 314–315) has divided transmedia storytelling into “What If?” transmedia—that allow incompatible elements alongside those that are canonical, that is, broadly accepted by fans or audiences as being part of the narrative world (cf. Jenkins 1992, 94–98)— and “What Is” transmedia, which is about filling in the gaps. Mittell nevertheless notes that the lines between these two are fluid (2015, 315). We argue that beyond the narrative construction of a specific story or storyworld, both “What If?” and “What Is” transmedia fit within the same transmedia universe.

Alternative events, stories and themes can be a result of the dispersal of creativity between different producers and platforms. Scholars have noted that such dispersal affects the content of transmedia texts, making it hard to create a coherent and unified transmedia storyworld (e.g. Clarke 2013; Harvey 2015, 188; Johnson 2013, 111). This is evident, for instance, in tie-in novels often diverging from the core text (Clarke 2009, 441; Mittell 2015, 297). The BSG transmedia universe includes cases of this, for example, in the novels The Cylon’s Secret (2006) by Craig Shaw Gardner and Unity (2007) by Steven Harper. The writers of the tie-in novels are faced with specific restrictions and constraints from the series’ producers, and so the novels tend to be distanced from the program (Clarke 2009, 435). Clarke (2009, 443–444) has noted how a lack of communication between the authors of tie-in novels and the official franchise production team has led to authors seeking information on the fictional world from fandom, such as fan-created wikis—many of the writers of which are fans of the franchises themselves. How users engage with and interpret a transmedia universe can thus influence the construction of the official franchise. This is an example of why the transmedia universe concept needs to include myriad aspects of storytelling, production and consumption.

In addition to official diegetic expansions in the BSG transmedia universe, there is an even more diverse collection of unofficial diegetic expressions created by fans. Thousands of stories based on the reimagined BSG alone are published in online fan fiction archives.[6] Suzanne Scott (2008; 2010; 2013) has argued that as different transmedia productions—such as webisodes, or podcasts by the series producer—are created to fill the narrative gaps, the fans of Battlestar Galactica may find it hard to create fan fiction—at least, if they wish their fiction to fit into the canonical, accepted storyworld of the series. This does not seem to be the case for BSG fan fiction, which ranges from stories that add details to the events of the television series to stories that are described by the authors themselves as set in an “alternate universe”, and to crossover fan fiction that mixes elements from BSG with elements from other stories, such as other science fiction television.

Fan-created expansions can, similarly to the ones included in the official franchise, be described as either “What If?” or “What Is” transmedia depending on the content. This user-generated content is usually published free of charge, beyond the control of the official franchise, but sometimes it is directed and controlled by the franchise (Harvey 2015, 135). As Derek Johnson (2013, 227, 229) notes, using the fan-created Battlestar Galactica game Diaspora as an example, user-generated content, despite being created beyond franchise control, can also be purposefully distanced from the core television series, similarly to official transmedia expansions. However, much of the user-generated content features the major events and characters of the core television series.

Games provide intriguing examples of transmedia expansions by introducing non-narrative elements to the transmedia universe. In the BSG video game (2003), the main character is young Adama (also a main character in the reimagined series), still a Viper pilot at this point. There is not much story content in the game, as it consists of a series of Cylon attacks posing various challenges to the Viper fleet, and the action mainly consists of flying and shooting. It is the nature of games as part of transmedia universes that they do not primarily tell stories about the world but “let the user of the world become and act as a character in the world” (Klastrup and Tosca 2004, 5). The aforementioned BSG Board Game also includes a strong non-narrative element. The game manages to recreate the paranoid feeling of the Colonials in the players, as they do not know which of them are Cylons in disguise, and a player might find oneself a Cylon only after a lengthy gaming period (see also Booth 2015, 107). Here, the emphasis is not on the story content, but rather, on the users’ engagement with the fictional world and its characters, which underlines the need for a wider perspective on the transmedia experience. In our experience from playing the game, most of its enjoyment comes from playing with characters familiar from the reimagined BSG, as well as recognising situations typical in the narrative of the series.

Even though productions such as podcasts, commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries are situated in non-diegetic relation to the storyworld, they still provide a way for the users to engage with the transmedia universe, and may provide information that affects the way they understand the broader transmedia universe. For example, simultaneously with the first airing of the reimagined BSG series, podcasts by the series creator, Ronald D. Moore, were released. These podcasts provided commentary to each episode and were later made available as DVD extras, including background information and interpretations of the characters and events, along with information about the making of the series, such as explanations for certain creative decisions. For instance, the commentary for episode 2 of season 2 reveals that a coat worn by a main character, Starbuck, belonged to her father, information that is not revealed in the episode itself. This detail hints at Starbuck’s emotions towards her father, not previously discussed in the series.

The significance of these non-diegetic expansions for audiences is visible in, for example, the Battlestar Wiki. The wiki includes detailed documentation of the BSG transmedia universe (both the original and reimagined series). Each series episode, for example, is listed with the exact time of its first airing, the plot synopsis, characters appearing in it, actors and guest actors and an analysis of the events in relation to the story continuum. Returning to Scolari’s (2009, 598) strategies, his “user-generated content platform” reduces the content and its role as a transmedia expansion to the platform alone, but in fact, the wiki collects, creates and structures fans’ knowledge and interpretations of the series (cf. Booth 2010). Battlestar Wiki is a tremendous fan effort in many ways, underlining the appetite of media users for various additional and supporting information (see also Mittell 2013). The engagement with the BSG transmedia universe is not only about immersing oneself in the fictional world but also revelling in the related trivia. This trivia concerns both the fictional world and non-diegetic aspects of the BSG, such as the actors and scene-shooting instances—typical content of behind-the-scenes extras and commentary tracks.

The role of non-diegetic content is one of the key differences between the concepts of transmedia storytelling and our conceptualisation of transmedia universe. These non-diegetic transmedia expansions include material objects such as action figures (see also Evans 2011, 21–23). Harvey (2015, 137–162) acknowledges that toys and other merchandise emphasise how transmedia worlds are a wider concept than just stories since they can be used as props in stories that users enact themselves or may serve as entrances to fictional storyworlds. Similarly, we argue that non-diegetic content should not only be seen as commercial attempts to attract more users but also part of the way in which audiences engage with transmedia universes, even though the non-diegetic content does not expand the diegetic world as such.[7] In brief, with transmedia universe, we are not only referring to a diegetic storyworld or a universe comprising of various storyworlds but our universe is a construction that encompasses all materials related to the core text, one that is not limited to specific media.

Image 3. Examples of the BSG universe, including both official and non-official content. Lego characters by Ochre Jelly. Source: Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Top-left photo by Aino-Kaisa Koistinen, top-right by Raine Koskimaa.

Outside the BSG transmedia universe, an example of this type of construction can be seen in how audiences engage with The Hobbit film trilogy, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book. Even though the book and the films are not transmedia in that they would create a coherent storyworld (cf. Jenkins 2006; 2011), audiences’ experiences with the book and the films are often expressed as engagement with a broader “Tolkien universe” that also includes various transmedia productions, like user-generated content, visits to filming locations, or events such as queuing for the films (Koistinen, Ruotsalainen and Välisalo 2016, 361–366). Shifting the focus to transmedia users thus brings new perspectives to analysing how transmediality is as much a construction created by audiences as it is a creation of the official franchise.

We have demonstrated how diegetic and non-diegetic, narrative and non-narrative content produced by both official and unofficial content creators should all be considered as part of the transmedia universe of BSG. Even though different parts of the transmedia universe are not equal in that the television series tends to dominate the creation of official content and originate the user-generated content, they all have the potential of adding layers of meaning to BSG. The same can certainly be said for other complex transmedia universes as well. Indeed, research needs to go beyond narratives, storyworlds and franchises to analyse the vastness of transmedia universes.


In this article, we have suggested a novel definition for the transmedia universe concept to encompass the complexity of transmedia production and consumption. In our understanding, a transmedia universe thus includes not only additions to the official storyworld but also non-diegetic, non-narrative, non-fictional, unauthorised and user-generated content. Indeed, we argue that is not sufficient to study only narrative world expansion strategies; to grasp the vastness of the transmedia phenomenon, we need to move beyond narratives to the analysis of transmedia universes with all their diegetic and non-diegetic, narrative and non-narrative contents. Non-diegetic products such as merchandise are an integral part of the transmedia universe and affect how users understand it; the same can be said for user-generated content. Transmedia universe as a concept thus discards the demand for “a unified and coordinated” (Jenkins 2011) experience and allows incoherence and conflicting elements between different products of the same universe. In other words, the expressions forming a given transmedia universe do not need to establish a coherent canon.

We also do not expect all users to accept the varying expansions in the canon of, for example, their favourite television series. A transmedia universe is more like a set of elements, expansions and stories that users utilise according to their preferences. Transmedia universes are not merely created by commercial entities but comprise various heterogeneous elements forming a complex whole. For the engaged audience, the transmedia universe in all its complexity is significant in how they approach and experience productions such as BSG, and this audience perspective specifically motivates the need for the concept of transmedia universe in the way delineated in this article.

Enabled by the developments of digital technologies, transmediality has generated a significant change in the media landscape, and for television specifically. Even though these changes are emphasised in the science fiction and fantasy genres, in particular, they are part of a wider phenomenon. Applying our definition of the concept of transmedia universe to this phenomenon will take us closer to the lived reality of transmedia consumers and the different ways they are navigating and experiencing the current media landscape, not just through narrative expansions but other content as well. Our definition of transmedia universe, therefore, opens up new perspectives on reception and media use. Further analysis is needed of user-generated content and what it can tell us about how fans, users and consumers interpret and use media. Indeed, future research on transmedia should develop the concept of transmedia universe and redirect focus towards actual transmedia audiences.


This research was supported by the EU Horizon 2020 funding (Transmedia Literacy. Exploiting transmedia skills and informal learning strategies to improve formal education. RIA 645238).


All links verified 14.6.2021.


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[1] We prefer to use “expansions” or “expressions” when referring to the instalments of the BSG universe instead of, for example, “extensions” or “products” since the preferred terms better encompass the diverse materials in the universe, including user-generated content.

[2] For more on BSG of 1978–1979, see Booker (2004, 89), Storm (2007, 1–10) and Telotte (2008, 18; 2014, 32–33).

[3] For more on the differences and similarities of the original and reimagined BSG series, see Koistinen 2015.

[4] When addressing diegetic content specifically, the theoretical framework of possible worlds might prove useful in describing the various ontological zones found there (Ryan 1991). Ryan has applied the notion of storyworlds to transmedia storytelling (2013), but the approach is less suited to the wider scope adopted in this paper, covering the franchise and user-generated aspects in addition to diegetic content.

[5] Suzanne Scott (2010, 32) uses The Face of the Enemy webisodes as an example of how transmedia stories are “pushing queer readings or queer characters to the periphery of the narrative”. In this sense, transmedia expansions may be used for both including and excluding queer characters and viewers.

[6] More than 5,700 fan fiction stories were published on Archive of Our Own and 5,400 stories on Fanfiction.net, the two largest fan fiction archives, by 21 May 2021.

[7] Toys can even be the origin or core of a transmedia universe, as is the case with My Little Pony and Transformers.

This article will be re-published on WiderScreen extra issue, December 2021.


1–2/2021 WiderScreen 24 (1–2)

An Inquiry on Post-linguistic Subjects in Twin Peaks: The Return

Dougie Jones, entelechy, neurodiversity, post-linguistic subjects, Twin Peaks: The Return

Francisco B. Trento
francisco.trento [a] uniarts.fi
PhD, postdoctoral researcher
The University of The Arts Helsinki

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Trento, Francisco B. 2021. ”An Inquiry on Post-linguistic Subjects in Twin Peaks: The Return”. WiderScreen 24 (1-2). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2021-1-2/an-inquiry-on-post-linguistic-subjects-in-twin-peaks-the-return/

Printable PDF version

In the long-awaited third season of Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991; Showtime, 2017), the audience was introduced to Dougie Jones, a tulpa of FBI Agent Dale Cooper, the series’ main character. In the series, a tulpa is a fictional entity created through somebody’s wishful thinking and meditation. The audience and critics interpreted Dougie Jones as a clumsy, unintentional, a-rhetorical character, incapable of solving the investigation cases like Cooper. In this article, I discuss Dougie’s post-linguistic subjectivity to contest the notion of intentionality which relies on linguistic traits and normative behaviours. Dougie Jones’ character disturbs the normative understanding of intentionality, which fails to embrace subjectivities that do not always express consent through linguistic constraints. To discuss these matters, I draw on Neurodiversity Studies (Yergeau 2018) and Critical Disability Studies (Clark 2013).


First, I will introduce Dougie Jones’ role in the drama and supernatural mystery TV series Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990–1991), created by Mark Frost and David Lynch. Dougie Jones expresses themselves by repeating short words and non-linguistic signs of intention. I posit the question of linguistic intentionality because it is used to categorise individuals as rhetorical beings. I draw on the scholarship of Neurodiversity Studies researcher Melanie Yergeau to challenge spoken and written language as the sole modalities of expressing intention. I analyse Dougie Jones’ scenes from the third season of Twin Peaks through their lenses. Briefly, I also mention how people in the spectrum of neurodiversity are represented in North American TV shows.

Dougie Jones never expressed himself through complex phrasal constructs. That does not mean their intentionality is not expressed. Non-linguistic intentionality and post-linguistic consent modalities are often read as dangerous features. They receive the label of ‘creepy’ or ‘weird.’ Neurodiversity Studies’ growing body of literature discusses the narrow-mindedness of the common understandings of rhetoric and intentionality.

Neurodiversity, as a term, was coined by the activist Judy Singer. She defines neurodiversity as a subset of earthly biodiversity. Humans colonised almost all earthly ecosystems (Singer 2019). Therefore, neurodiversity is present in the entire world, and it “refers specifically to the limitless variability of human cognition and the uniqueness of each human mind” (Singer 2019). Neurodiversity, in this conceptualisation, does not distinguish between able and disabled human bodies. Instead, in Singer’s vision (2019), everybody is neurodiverse, as there is a wide range of cognitive variability and modes of expression and communication. The neurodiverse movement and the neurodiverse paradigm focused on the subjectivities who are not neurologically typical, especially the ones in the spectrum of autism. While the discussion regarding the limits of neurodiversity and its different connotations is far from being finished, some bodies who do not adhere to the normative/standard modes of being and communication suffer from the lack of proper recognition of their onto-epistemological views.

Neurodiversity Studies (Rosqvist, Chown & Stenning 2020) is an emerging research field that focuses on the non-neurotypical modalities of perception. It emerged from within Critical Disability Studies in the 2010s. It aims to craft anti-ableist onto-epistemologies and dislodge able-bodiedness as the centre of the human and non-human experience. The concept of a post-linguistic subject was borrowed from the Literary Theory Scholar Antony Ballas (2019).

Of Tulpas and Doppelgangers

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) is the third instalment of the Twin Peaks TV series. The Twin Peaks franchise’s main plot revolves around the investigation of Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) death in the North American town of Twin Peaks, Washington. She was murdered under mysterious circumstances, and her body was found wrapped in plastic near the shore. While Laura was portrayed as the archetype of the innocent white and virgin girl, her lifestyle embraced substance abuse and sexual misconduct that could bother a small conservative town’s inhabitants. In this series, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was presented as a skilled FBI agent sent to Twin Peaks to investigate Laura’s death. Cooper’s character is compassionate and possesses a vast knowledge of occultism and Tibetan Buddhism – one of Lynch’s primary influences (Bishop, 1992). This attunement to the occult otherness fed Cooper’s intuition and helped him solve the mystery. Laura was murdered by a ghostly entity that has inhabited Twin Peaks for decades – Bob (Frank Silva). Bob had incorporated into Laura’s father body, Leland (Ray Wise), and killed her during an orgy in the city’s hotel, as shown in the films Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces (2014), directed by David Lynch.

The second season of Twin Peaks ended with Agent Cooper stuck in another dimension: The Waiting Room. Cooper crushes his head into a mirror in its last scene and laughs with his face covered in blood. Cooper had travelled to the lodge to rescue his girlfriend, Annie (Heather Graham), kidnapped by one of his nemeses and former FBI agent Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), as a lure to capture him and get revenge. The Waiting Room is an interdimensional portal that mediates communication between our universe and the others. Its scenery includes red curtains and kitsch furniture lying on a zig-zagged stylised ground. In Twin Peaks, the other dimensions, layers of the actual fictional world, including the Black and the White Lodges. The former is the home of evil beings, including Bob and the Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson).

The White Lodge scenario was designed through computer-generated imagery, and it is presented as a fortress lying in a purple sea. It hosts peaceful entities and spirits, like ‘The Giant,’ later named ‘The Fireman’ (Carel Struycken). He wants to restore the balance between the good and evil forces through interference into Earth’s world. In Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return, it is implied that he sent Laura Palmer to Earth to restore the balance after the first human-made nuclear explosion opened a dimensional schism that allowed creatures of the Black Lodge to populate Earth. This mechanism later brought Dougie Jones to Earth.

While the first two iterations of Twin Peaks revolve around Dale Cooper and his catchy phrases, Cooper is absent from the first sixteen episodes, or at least a talkative and self-presentational version of the FBI agent. It knowingly contests the earlier show’s core of audience identification with Agent Dale Cooper” (Hills 2017, 08). During the six first parts of Twin Peaks: The Return, most of the usual scenarios of Twin Peaks’ town were absent, and as well the characters of its sheriff’s department (Hills 2017, 4), breaking the continuity of the series’ spatiality. During the beginning of the season, Cooper had journeyed through the thresholds of another dimension, while in the ‘real world’ scenario, his tulpa was thriving to survive. To make the absence of Agent Cooper in the ‘real world’, unnoticed, Mr C – an evil doppelgänger of Dale Cooper, under the control of Bob – forged two copies of Cooper’s body and sent them to Earth. In the third part of Twin Peaks: The Return, the audience was presented to Douglas Jones and their daily life. Douglas worked in an insurance company, Lucky 7 Insurance. Douglas was portrayed as fatter than Cooper, and he used colourful and tacky clothing in contrast with the always well-adjusted black coat of the FBI agent. Dougie Jones was created to mimic FBI Agent Dale Cooper, as the main character was stuck in another dimension since the end of the second season.

Tulpas and tulpamancy – the practice of crafting tulpas – grew in popularity in online communities like Reddit in this decade. There, users gather to discuss techniques to craft these imaginary companions. Many of David Lynch’s aesthetic and narrative choices are inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. It is supposed that tulpamancy emerged in meditative practices in which it is believed that an entity would be created according to the intentionality of the person who crafted it. Tulpas, as explored in many online communities, like Reddit, are conceived of as entities that share mental space with the host (Martin, Thompson & Lancaster, 2020). In Twin Peaks, tulpas were not only portrayed as creatures of thought; they also emerge physically, outside the body of their creators. After being crafted in somebody’s mind, the tulpa may develop its own desires (Martin, Thompson & Lancaster, 2020).

[A Tulpa] equates to ‘thoughtform,’ both as the idea of a form conjured from thought as if out of nothing, but also specifically in Tibetan Buddhism, Tibet having been very important to Cooper prior to going into the Lodge. Note that a Tulpa in the Twin Peaks mythos is not the same as a doppelgänger, which is an inversion of the original; the Tulpa seems to be an extension of the original. This Tulpa was named Dougie Jones, and had a weakness for gambling and prostitutes, yet somehow married and produced a child. Being an extension of the evil Cooper, he has wants (greed and lust) that may or may not reflect the original Cooper. (Piercy 2018 as quoted in Tembo, 2020, p. 192)

In Twin Peaks: The Return, the tulpas are framed as entities without intentionality. They are proxies built to perform actions and mimic other individuals. The show implied that Douglas Jones is a tulpa of Dale Cooper sent to this world twenty-five years before the show’s third season timeline. Douglas lived in Las Vegas. In a rendezvous with a prostitute, Douglas’s body embodied Dougie. Dale Cooper was sent back to Earth, travelling across the electricity network during that moment. Cooper, however, was transferred to Douglas’ body, which was already inhabited for decades. As two different things cannot be in the same place without having their physical integrity affected, they merged into a distinct entity, Dougie Jones. He is neither Douglas nor Cooper, but Douglas and Cooper, a mesh of Douglas Jones and Dale Cooper’s subjectivities.

David Lynch’s oeuvre is marked by the presence of doppelgängers, physically similar or identical to the body they mimic – and therefore interpreted by the same actors, but generally embodying a different sense of morality. Frequently, the characters meet their analogue or digital doppelgängers, delivering them into uncomfortable and uncanny situations (Jarvis, 2020). In Lost Highway (1997), the main character can transform herself into unknown doubles. In Twin Peaks: The Return, several copies of Dale Cooper appear. These copies are not doppelgängers, as the latter oppose or mirror the ‘original ones.’ They are, instead, empty shells that have an individual autonomy to become something different.

Another character portrayed as a tulpa in the third season of Twin Peaks is Diane (Laura Dern). She has been present since the first episode of Twin Peaks. Agent Cooper kept a diary in his cassette recorder, and Diane was his interlocutor. ”Diane, 7:30 am February twenty-fourth. Entering the town of Twin Peaks. Five miles south of the Canadian border, twelve miles west of the state line. Never seen so many trees in my life. As WC Fields would say, I’d rather be here than Philadelphia” (Twin Peaks, Pilot). Only in the third season, her face and background history were narratively explored. In the series, Diane used to be an FBI agent briefly romantically engaged with Cooper. In the third season, she was recruited by FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (David Lynch) to help him find Cooper, who was out of the radar since 1991. While being interrogated by Cole and his partner Albert (Miguel Ferrer), Diane realised that she was not the ‘original’ Diane but a tulpa sent by the entities of the Black Lodge (Video 1).

Video 1. Diane Scene Twin Peaks Season 3 Part 16.

The observation of non-typical behaviour is key to identifying tulpas who aim to pass as another person. After being debunked and sent back to the interdimensional waiting room, Diane-tulpa met MIKE (Al Strobel), a mischievous entity that uttered the phrase: “Someone manufactured you. For a purpose!”. She was transformed into a pearl-shaped seed.

Image 1. Douglas Jones and Diane’s tulpa returning to the seed state after fulfilling their entelechies.

Tulpas often detour their ‘entelechy’, defying their ‘planned’ purpose. Entelechy is the idea that the initial stage of a being contains the recipe that will define its entire existence. The autistic scholar Melanie Yergeau explains entelechy “as a finality or cause that is intention possessed within and unto itself. Aristotle’s primary example of entelechy was that of the seed: a seed’s potential and eventual plantness is encoded within that very seed”. As I mentioned, after the phrase ‘Someone manufactured you for a purpose, which now has been fulfilled’ was uttered in the series, the bodies of the tulpas precisely returned to the shape of a seed, as if their entelechies were fully reached, except for Dougie Jones’ character, briefly analysed in the next section of this article.

Dougie Jones’ Post-linguistic Subjectivity

To discuss the state of Dougie Jones’ narrative role expressing intentionality beyond the linguistic signification, I break down the device of intentionality into three elements. They are the linguistic – or post-linguistic – rhetoric, linguistic – or post-linguistic – consent and the primacy of humanly-performed behaviour. I analyse a few passages where Dougie enacts their post-linguistic subjectivity. Dougie was repeatedly questioned and interdicted because of their ‘strange’ acts.

Dougie Jones acted ‘strangely’ – he rarely spoke or used complex phrases in his societal interactions. In other academic publications, he was described as a ‘trance-like stupor’ version of Agent Cooper (Grønstad 2020, 124). I discuss Dougie’s narrative role to exemplify how bodies that are not neurologically typical are devalued by neurotypical society. Dougie Jones’s tulpa cannot be classified as a neurodiverse body in the narrow sense of the term. However, Dougie’s tulpa performs behaviours that do not reproduce typically structured methods of social and work-related performance.

The empty vessel[1] schema mirrors a common trope regarding people in the neurodiverse spectrum. As Melanie Yergeau (2018, 73) says, concerning the Autism Speaks co-founder Suzanne Wright, “in other words, Wright suggests, autistic people are mere husks, fleshy orbs who breathe and dwell and exist, but whose presence is not accurately termed living.” Dougie’s interests do not rely on fulfilling the typical standardised patterns of communication. The media and film scholar Matt Hills (2017, 7) defined Dougie Jones as “a ‘shell’ of false identity: He is depicted as unable to speak, beyond repeating the ends of others’ sentences, and is unable to recall his own identity and history”. From now on, when referring to Dougie Jones, I point to the tulpa that inhabited Dougie’s body.

Image 2. Dougie Jones thrives on black coffee.

Despite not behaving like her husband’s previous iteration, Janey-Y sent Dougie to their job, a big insurance company in Los Angeles (Twin Peaks: The Return, Part 5). When arriving in the complex where the company is located, Dougie started to explore the environment. Dougie did not walk in straight lines or with a clear purpose in the eyes of their employers. Dougie bumped into an insurance company assistant (Video 2), who was carrying a pile of coffee cups straight from the coffeeshop.

Video 2. Dougie Elevator Scene.

Dougie’s body was captured by the gravity of the strong smell of coffee and moved their head towards their lids. The assistant mentioned that Dougie was late for a meeting, but his attention remains on the coffee cups. He walks towards the elevators, and Dougie follows – the coffee, not the person. Dougie enters the elevator, and their face looks to the back of the elevator, not into the other passengers’ faces. This gesture caused some discomfort on these individuals who were not used to non-typical socialites that detour face-to-face conversations. Suddenly, Dougie’s head was propelled in a different direction while he utters one of the few words he learned after being manufactured as a tulpa: “C-O-F-F-E-E.” The assistant said, “I am sorry, Dougie, I didn’t get one for you.” However, Dougie does not respond to linguistic modalities of consent. Instead, he followed his appetites, and his arms reach toward a cup of coffee, disregarding the names written on the coffee cups. When the coffee finally touches Dougie’s mouth, an orgasmic sound echoes. He drank a large cup of coffee in one sip, impressing the other passengers in the elevator and repeating the phrase said by his assistant: “A DAMN GOOD JOE.” Dougie communicated and expressed his desires by repeating the exact phrases and bodily movements that his peers did not understand. Repetition is discarded from the typically ableist understanding of intentionality, or a post-linguistic subject, as Ballas (2019) asserted:

Dougie (Dale Cooper’s ‘tulpa’) is a post-linguistic subject who has no memory of language, and must relearn simple tasks like eating, drinking and social cues. However, Dougie’s amnesia does not result in a lack of agency, but rather enhances his abilities—as though he has pure, unmediated access to reality, is able to divine the truth, and ultimately access knowledge of the real beyond the subjective frame. (Ballas, 2019, 123)

Image 3. Dougie in the elevator.

Other interpretations of Dougie’s performance diminish his mode of being: “Dougie’s blank intoning of linguistic tropes from the original show, always slightly off-key, gestures tantalisingly toward something that is and will remain absent” (Jones, 2020, p. 10; our remark) or medicalise his existence, by affirming that Dougie represents Lynch’s “fantastical connotations of dementia” (Hills, 2017, p. 01). The previous phrase may express the common understanding of intentionality. As there is no clear objective in linguistic or bodily language easily readable by neurotypicals, one assumes a lack of it. It is absent. Eventually, ‘non-normal behaviour is pathologised, deemed dangerous and unpredictable, as it does not fit onto the grid of controlled expectations of a control society (Deleuze, 1990), where a network of devices survey deviant behaviours.

I highlight the ending credits of Twin Peaks: The Return, Part 5 (Video 3). Dougie stares at a statue located in the parking lot/entrance of the insurance company that employs him. His fixed gaze towards the statue lasts for a long time, while Dougie slowly explores the monument’s toes by gently touching them. That simple gesture, without a clear intention, was enough to activate the hyper-policialised society’s alarm, as a guard of the company arrives and tries to inform Dougie that he is not allowed to stay there after the working hours. The credits start rolling over Dougie’s apparent stuckness, and Johnny Jewel’s Windswept plays in the background while the last lights of the complex of buildings are turned off. The artist-researcher Jaime del Val connects this constant personal and interpersonal vigilance to the bodily postures and non-linguistic rhetorical signs of human bodies to a fixed model of vision that emerged during the Renaissance. According to him, “this model, that is still grounding our cameras and screen-based interfaces in digital culture, allows to reduce movement to segments that can be codified, first in strict behavioural patterns and architectures” (Del Val 2020, 315).

Video 3. Ending credits of Twin Peaks: The Return, Part 5.

On a broader level, agency, as a concept, is understood by new materialist epistemologies as a distributed phenomenon that happens through intra-actions (Barad, 2003). Therefore, agency is not restricted to the intentionality of a singular individual. Nevertheless, it is still essential to understanding the nuances of the empty vessel schema. There are bodies read as empty vessels incapable of societal interaction, like Dougie. In that understanding, intentionality is only read as expressing clear linguistic order words in English. As I wrote (Kuipers & Trento, 2018), Dougie Jones’ non-normativity disrupts daily life’s behavioural and normative constraints. when Dougie intends to do something, “it’s not through linguistic and social techniques. (…) There’s not “I want,” not at least as a voice that passes through their throat, but as a movement-moving, their body tending towards a piece of pie or a black cup of joe”. (Kuipers & Trento, 2018).

Intent and non-typical rhetoricities in post-linguistic subjects

In this article, I draw on Neurodiversity Studies as they offer a robust framework for deconstructing the normative understandings of rhetoric that Dougie did not fulfil. The following paragraphs illustrate the current growing body of literature on neurodiversity and my experience as a person on the spectrum of neurodiversity. While there are several definitions regarding the neurodiverse spectrum range, I advocate for a broader understanding of it. It encompasses not only those diagnosed or identified with the spectrum of autism but also the body-minds with ADHD and non-typical ways of focusing, and those who suffer from anxiety and depression disorders. In general, one could say that any non-normative mode of behaviour could be assigned to the spectrum of neurodiversity. Importantly, though, is to reaffirm that each condition/mode of being has its particularities/necessities that shall not be ignored.

Melanie Yergeau’s (2018) book Authoring Autism: On Neurological Queerness explores how neuroqueer perception is often discursively de-rhetorised. Moreover, in its most normative sense, rhetoric embraces a distinct sense of perception of intentionality. One mechanism that aims to exclude neurodiverse bodies from the rhetorical realm is the affirmation that they cannot express intentionality. Intentionality is understood as a solely linguistic feature tuned to a particularly normative mode of sociality, which diminishes the agential potential of the non-human relationalities. The intent is only evaluated when it is clearly spoken, and when it is “offered in conjunction with the neuroqueer, it becomes illegible: we only know what intent is when that intent is read via pro-social measures” (Yergeau, 2018, 37). Nowadays, many practisers of ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis), the most recognised therapy for neurodiverse persons in the Americas, still see neurodiverse bodies as lacking intentionality. In sum, Yergeau systematises intentionality as a linguistic or non-linguistic system expressions of inference:

If we were to define intentionality rather simply, we might cast it as that toward which we turn as well as the action of turning-toward unto itself. Intentionality encompasses both the process of inference and the physical action of communicating or making that inference known. It is determined by both cause and effect, the latter of which is made recognisable on the body—through speech, through gesture, through gaze, through paralinguistic cues such as throat clearing, or feet shuffling, or kiss blowing. (Yergeau 2018, p. 37)

The issue lies in intentionality being only read in the typically spoken language or in gestural codes that rely on a neurotypical causality [i.e., I smile because I am happy]. Also, in ”neuronormative Western cultures, on the other hand, are more likely to demand eye contact as a sign of respect or attention, demand’ quiet hands’ as a sign of being ready to learn (Bascom 2011) and prioritise speech over other forms of communication.” (Hillary 2020, 97). The compulsory withdrawal of the intent from the neurodiverse perception dehumanises people on the spectrum, posing them as non-subjects. If intent cannot be detected in somebody’s speaking, it is deemed non-existent. Melanie Yergeau explains that intent “isn’t empirically visible in the way that flapping fingers are; nor is meaning as neutrally descriptive as fingers moving back and forth, or fingers thumbing the air, or fingers fluttering over the eyes of an autistic interlocutor” (Yergeau 2018, 145). While these non-typical demonstrations of intent are hardly noticed in many social situations, they suffer several attempts of categorisation by the standardised state apparatuses. However, “what finger motions mean cannot be contained in a graph, plotted as an average, or intuited by means of physical observation. However, finger motions can be contained, extinguished, reinforced, prompted, faded, shaped, or otherwise brought into compliance” (Yergeau 2018, 145).

In her dissertation, the Critical Disability Studies scholar Emily Clark (2013) analysed the representation of deafness in the literature of the 1980s. Clark problematises the compulsory implicit and collective understanding that the expression of an internal feeling can be only made through a linguistic utterance. Instead of categorising individuals by their ability to perform language normatively, which may solidify the ableist divide between the able and non-able bodies, Clark (2013, 12) proposes alternative categories:

  • Bodies with language (specifically English), and without languae (mute, unintelligible).
  • Bodies with “correct” language (grammatically-correct, understandable, “appropriate”), and with “incorrect” language (cursing, screaming, “sloppy” grammar).
  • Bodies that communicate verbally; bodies that communicate non-verbally.
  • Literate bodies; barely literate bodies; illiterate bodies.
  • Bodies that chose to read, and those that chose not to read.

The notion of post-linguistic subjectivity converges with the post-linguistic turn in the social sciences and humanities during the 1980s. It vouched to overcome the structuralist paradigm, which posited the discursivities as societal construction’s leading agents. In a structuralist framework, “where there is reason, there is a subject” has been replaced by “where there is language, there is a subject” (Wolfe 2003, 129, as quoted by Clark 2013, 68). In the TV series, Dougie Jones’ post-linguistic subjectivity oscillates between ‘bodies with incorrect language’ and ‘bodies that communicate non-verbally.’ However, “language in the form of representation, including literary representation specifically and evocatively, is a mechanism that has the capacity to humanise as well as to dehumanise” (Clark 2013, 68). Dougie has a lot to say in terms of non-linguistic modalities of intent. Let’s take one of the scenes in which Dougie is attracted by the smell of a ‘damn’ cup of black coffee – a desire that emerged from the bodily memory of Agent Dale Cooper. His body moves towards the cups propelled by his obsessive appetite for that drink is an example to help the reader understand how the normative device of neurotypicality funnels all experience and expression. Both Dougie’s stillness and his constant desire for more coffee and pie were pathologised. These are glitches that may disturb the ‘correct’ organisation of societal behaviour through neurotypical eyes. In cinema and TV, non-typical behaviour and post-linguistic subjects are mostly praised when they fulfil a goal of success, in terms of a successful career or the ‘overcoming’ of difficulties, as I will briefly discuss in the next section.

In the series, Dougie Jones had obsessions. Dougie frequently expressed his constant desire to eat cake, pies and drink large amounts of black coffee. Despite not being fully understood by his colleagues, his obsessions facilitated his working life. Dougie received messages from the lodge’s entities through visions of them pointing to random points of his sight. In the first part of Twin Peaks: The Return, the entities are shown in the scenario of a casino, where they pointed the right directions to help Dougie win a large sum of money in the slot machines. With a pencil, Dougie drew a series of lines over the insurance company’s spreadsheets back at the insurance company. The drawing helped his boss unveil a fraudulent internal schema of corruption and the workers responsible for the non-appropriate behaviour were purged. When the owner of the insurance company, Bushnell Williams, invited Dougie into his room, he promptly understood what Dougie’s drawings meant without requiring the utterance of complex spoken phrases. This gesture embodies not only acceptance but engagement with post-linguistic modalities of communication, acknowledging that “there are bodies who will never speak, or at least, will never speak in recognisable human language” (Clark 2013, 15). As I have written, “perhaps revealing in typicality, but the lines are just lines as much as red is just red. To draw just a line means not to parse all of the abstractions into its act or to rely on pure habit. It is just a line in the drawing of the event, while simultaneously its ingression” (Kuipers & Trento, 2018).

Image 4. Dougie’s drawings.

On another occasion – Twin Peaks: The Return, Part 13 – Dougie Jones was summoned by Anthony Sinclair (interpreted by Tom Sizemore) for a coffee date in the insurance company’s café. Sinclair aimed to kill Dougie Jones by poisoning his coffee, as Dougie’s drawings revealed the latter was involved in a corruption scheme. The character walked towards a display filled with several apple pies in the scene. Dougie’s eyes immediately focused on the pies. When asked by the attendant, he could not speak out his intentions of eating the pie. When the attendant said he could sit down and have a coffee while waiting for the pie at the table, Dougie promptly changed his direction towards the table as if some keywords activated his movement. In the following scene, Dougie promptly takes the cup of coffee not destinated to him and puts his hands on Sinclair’s neck, changing his mind. Later, Sinclair decided to confess his involvement in the corruption scandal.

Dougie defied the expected entelechy for a character manufactured for a purpose, a body with “incorrect” language (cursing, screaming, “sloppy” grammar)”, according to Clark’s (2013, 12) previously-mentioned categorisation. An excellent concept to describe Dougie’s entelechy always-in-becoming is the Dogon egg, as it was conceptualised by the French Post-Structuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. For them, the construction of one’s self and subjectivity mirrors the development of an egg yet-to-be-hatched: “the egg is the milieu of pure intensity, spatium not extension, Zero intensity as principle of production” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 164). While the egg contains the genetic information, which will determine most of an individual’s phenotypical features, they are present in intensity, as they are subject to several contingencies. The egg “always designates this intensive reality, which is not undifferentiated, but is where things and organs are distinguished solely by gradients, migrations, zones of proximity” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 164). When post-linguistic subjects are stigmatised, their entelechy refers to a life with precarious agency and not much room for deviations from a master plan. Dougie was created to be easily manipulated, but the intensities present in his subjectivity helped dismantle the goals from the entities of the Black Lodge.

Dougie’s representation on screen brought discomfort to some spectators. One may argue that Dougie’s character carries the perspective of comic relief. However, his persistence in the series, to the detriment of the appearance of the real Cooper – who ‘appeared’ only during the last two episodes-, emphasises David Lynch’s interest in the post-linguistic modalities of rhetoric present in his most recent short films. A segment of the audience as well as some of the characters in the third instalment did not fully grasp the non-linguistic rhetorical potential of the tulpas and post-linguistic subjects. However, post-linguistic subjects take part in the social realm. They need better inclusion frameworks that rely less on their ridiculing and more on recognising their modes of being as valid onto-epistemological systems of belief. Neurodiversity and post-linguistic subjects are not simultaneous or the same. However, they may eventually overlap, as the oppressions of the shared collectivity of non-able bodies also overlap. In the next section, I briefly turn to the representation of some non-typical traits in contemporary television and film.

It is happening againestigmatising atypical rhetoricities on screen

Repetition is one of the most well-known traits of neurodiversity and other non-typical modes of being. It may refer to some gestures repeatedly enacted or known as stimming. It is often framed as ‘obsessive behaviour.’ Obsession is also often connected to ‘hyperfocus’ (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel 2019, p. 09): “(1) hyperfocus is induced by task engagement; (2) hyperfocus is characterised by an intense state of sustained or selective attention; (3) During a hyperfocus state, there is a diminished perception of non-task relevant stimuli; and (4) During a hyperfocus state, task performance improves”. In this article, I am not particularly interested in the possible biological causality that results in hyper-focusing. I am interested in societal responses to a mode of being that embraces hyper-focusing and often fails into including them into the work and social life. In the cinema, hyper-focus is often represented as a ‘superpower,’ while there is also a trend of framing it as an advantage at work.

As Malcolm Matthews (2019) has written in the article ‘Why Sheldon Cooper can’t be black’, neurodiverse subjects are often represented as white-male and heterosexual savants who hold extensive knowledge in mathematics, physics, coding and the hard sciences in general. They are portrayed as lacking the desire to interact with other humans—especially sexually. This prominent representation excludes an incredibly diverse pool of identities that may fit into the neurodiverse spectrum, who’s neurodiversity is never considered due to the significant tendency of assuming that the autism spectrum only includes white male individuals. That is the case of the protagonist of The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007-2019) TV show, where Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is on the spectrum of autism (Rourke & McGloin 2019). Sheldon is portrayed as a genius who obtained his PhD in theoretical physics as a teenager and disliked social agglomerations and sexual contact. This tendency grows on an old trope from the Applied Behavioural Analysis that fashions autism as an extreme-male disorder, while psychosis would be a female mental characteristic (Yergeau 2018).

Like Netflix’s Atypical (2018), and in other shows, generally well-received by the neurodiverse community, the main character Sam is an 18-year-old teenager who seeks to engage in a romantic heterosexual relationship with a colleague. In the American medical drama The Good Doctor (ABC, 2017-), the representation of autistic savantism and the inability to read social and bodily cues reappears, as the main character “Shawn Murphy is a young, genius surgical resident characterised as being inappropriate with patients, but able to decipher medical complications other surgeons cannot solve because of his autism.” (Audley 2020, 5).

These non-typical characters still successfully express intentionality by ‘passing’, performing as neurotypical, despite the emotional distress it can cause. In other words, they reach towards their entelechy of success. There is a particular common understanding of what ‘reaching towards’ (Manning 2007) means that needs to be deconstructed. Dougie’s touching expresses intentionality and cannot be only read through terms of uncertainty or dangerousness, as the danger of a ‘strange’ being that touches other people without pre-agreed linguistic consent. Linguistic consent must not be the measure of all intentionality, as it excludes beings who communicate and perceive differently than the norm. These modes of being are often represented in the mainstream audio-visual field as dangerous and creepy. I advocate for the creepy to become the crip, as in Crip Theory (Puar 2017). This academic field aims to foreground the non-abled ontologies and analyse how societal devices and discursivities mould the normative modes of being. There is nothing wrong or lacking in being crip, as queer activism reassigned the term ‘queer’. There is a need for more intersectionality in portraying and analysing fictional and non-fictional characters in audio-visual media.

An example of post-linguistic subjectivity’s portrayal refers to Samira Makhmalbaf’s protagonists in Sib (Iran, 1998): two sisters raised in an enclosed environment without being introduced to language. In the film, the camera follows their ‘release’ into the society after and portrays their communication with Tehran’s inhabitants without the utterance of fully formed words. There is a growing body of literature in academia that recognised the importance of this intersectionality. It interweaves between Deaf Studies and Neurodiversity Studies to modalities of communication “beyond the category of languages in general – and this is perhaps where autistic scholars and researchers attending to stimming (practices such as flapping arms, humming, spinning, playing with a rubber band, knitting, doodling, and tapping a foot” (Friedner and Block 2017, 287).

Conclusion: some considerations

In this article, I aimed to test some notions emerging in Neurodiversity Studies and Critical Disability Studies in film and television research. The concept of tulpa, and its portrayal in the series, helped examine the understanding of intentionality that stigmatises post-linguistic subjects. In Twin Peaks: The Return, Dougie’s portrayal as deviant from his purpose and utilitarian entelechy – “someone manufactured you, for a purpose, which now has been fulfilled” – and the unpreparedness of his peers to understand his more-than-linguistic modes of communication mirror the failure of societal organisations on dealing with the traits of neurodiversity.

While at any moment, Dougie Jones’ journey was recognised as a narrative of neurodiversity, the analysed scenes express that it is essential to posit and vouch for a broader understanding of the spectrum of neurodiversity in film and television fictional portrayals. In this sense, revisiting the concept of neurodiversity, as Judy Singer crafted, may help broaden the inclusivity and embrace individuals who communicate differently from standards of normalcy. As I mentioned (Trento 2020), Robert Chapman’s approach (2020) to neurodiversity is pragmatically valuable for those who identify with the spectrum. The author connects neurodiversity and autism, in particular, to a serial collective. This collectivity is not attached to an identitarian paradigm. It is a shared experience of oppression that can be transitory or permanent. The serial collective, as a notion, was created by the political theorist Iris Marion Young: ”serial collectives are defined in light of shared external material factors that mutually affect each member of the collective, regardless of whether they identify or not” (Chapman 2020, 12).

Film and Television Studies lack discussing neuroqueer minorities and post-linguistic subjects. Dougie Jones’ problematisation around the empty vessel model is a prolific point of entry into the debate on the representation of post-linguistic subjects’ intentionality in film and TV studies. The concept of “post-linguistic subjectivity” (Ballas 2019) needs further development, but it aligns with the post-linguistic turn in the Humanities. It also requires more audio-visual production that expresses neurodiverse subjects’ neurodiverse perception. One could argue that Dougie Jones’s character was developed as comic relief and therefore ridiculed. However, as I have exemplified here, post-linguistic subjectivities are represented through success and overcoming stories that tend to reproduce the mantra of ‘keep failing until you succeed,’ excluding the bodies who cannot attain dominant behavioural standards.

Francisco B. Trento is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Educational Research and Academic Development in the Arts (CERADA) at UniArts Helsinki, Finland, and previously obtained a Ph.D. in Communication and Semiotics at Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, Brazil. Their work emphasises nonneurotypical modes of perception and techniques for dis/abling arts education through artistic research. Francisco previously worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Senselab (Concordia University), and they work on the intersections between queer studies, post-qualitative inquiry, and critical disability studies.


All links verified 27.5.2021

Research materials

Atypical. 2017. Created by Robia Rashid. Written by Robia Rashid and several authors. Weird Brain, Exhibit A, Sony Pictures Television and Netflix.

Lost Highway. 1997. Written and Directed by David Lynch. October Films.

The apple [Sīb]. 1998. Directed by, Samīrā Makhmalbāf, Iran: Ferdosi Multimedia.

The Big Bang Theory. 2007-2019. Created by Chuck Lorre. Written and Directed by Several Authors. Chuck Lorre Productions, Warner Bros Productions and CBS Television.

Twin Peaks. 1990-1991. Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch. Directed by David Lynch, Tim Hunter, Caleb Deschanel & Others. Lynch/Frost Production, Propaganda Films, Spelling Television and CBS Television.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. 1992. Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch. Directed by David Lynch. CIBY Pictures.

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces. 2014. Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch. Directed by David Lynch, Absurda Productions.

Twin Peaks: The Return. 2017. Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch, directed by David Lynch. Showtime Networks, Rancho Rosa Partnership, Twin Peaks Productions, Lynch/Frost Productions.

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[1] A tulpa’s body is a vessel. A vessel, or a repository, is a common trope in several Western and Non-Western belief systems. The vessel does not possess any utility quality, as its function is carrying and delivering a message or fulfilling a purpose. In Christianity, “the metaphor of a liturgical leader as an empty vessel signifies openness and receptivity to divine authority and to act on behalf of Jesus Christ” (Slater 2020, 1) – “Jesus called Paul ’a chosen vessel of Mine to bear my name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel’ (Ac 9:15)” (Slater, 2020, 1).

1–2/2021 WiderScreen 24 (1–2)

Will Kentucky Route Zero Take You to Twin Peaks? Tracing the Narrative of the American Weird

cybertext, fan studies, hypertext, intertextuality, metatext, narrative, video games

Alesha Serada
aserada [a] uwasa.fi
PhD Student
School of Marketing and Communication
University of Vaasa

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Serada, Alesha. 2021. ”Will Kentucky Route Zero Take You to Twin Peaks? Tracing the Narrative of the American Weird”. WiderScreen 24 (1-2). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2021-1-2/will-kentucky-route-zero-take-you-to-twin-peaks-tracing-the-narrative-of-the-american-weird/

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In this article, I analyze the narrative of Kentucky Route Zero in search of tropes and constructive principles already known from Twin Peaks. I seek to find out how interactivity of the game adds to these tropes and techniques, and whether we can project our findings about its interactive hypertextual narrative back to Twin Peaks. I suggest that, in both cases, the fictional world largely emerges from the interaction with the audience that actively interprets the narrative and extends it far beyond the ‘tangible’ text. Furthermore, the authors explicitly call for such involvement by introducing self-reflexivity and metacommentary in their work. I conclude with the perspective of the American Weird setting, implemented in both ‘story worlds’; it can engender new meanings that surpass the linear logic of narration.

Introduction: Twin Peaks as the Point of Departure

Since its premiere in 1990, Twin Peaks has transformed the experience of consuming popular media, particularly television (see e.g., Barrett 2017; Boulègue 2017; Mittell 2015), not just for its fans, but also for the generations to come. This cult TV series remains one of the most influential texts in experimental storytelling, not least due to its unique fictional universe (‘story world’). In addition to television and film, the legacy of Twin Peaks can also be discovered in video games, as confirmed by many dedicated lists compiled by game critics. One particular game, Kentucky Road Zero (Elliott, Kemenczy, and Babbitt 2013), is frequently mentioned in such lists (Andriessen 2020; Green 2017; Seagrave 2017; Turi 2015; Welsh 2020). This association may be even more surprising, as the game does not visually resemble Twin Peaks. The look of the game is minimalist and clean; it has very few ‘cinematic’ segments and heavily relies on text dialogues.

Image 1. Scene from Kentucky Route Zero Act II (2013). The main characters are waiting for a giant eagle to carry them away from the corporate Museum of Dwellings.
Image 2. Scene from the finale of Kentucky Route Zero Act V (2020). The look of the game became more sophisticated in the process of development, especially in its depiction of space.

Kentucky Route Zero (2013–2020) is an independently developed computer game in five episodes, referred to as ‘Acts’ in the game. These ‘Acts’, united by an overarching narrative, were released in a serial form between 2013 and 2020. They were accompanied by another five shorter interactive ‘Interludes’ and other additional media content such as short videos and music recordings. The authors and developers of the game Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt formed a small company called Cardboard Computer; later, they partnered with the publisher Annapurna Interactive to bring the game to popular consoles (Elliott, Kemenczy, and Babbitt 2017) (Elliott et al., 2017). The game proved to be a creative success and gained a considerable fan following. Its official Reddit community exceeded 2,600 members as of May 2021, with approximately 800 discussion threads posted by developers and fans since February 17, 2013. The main writer of the game story, Jake Elliot, has been nominated for the 56th Nebula Award in the Game Writing category (SFWA 2021).

The game experiments with interactive techniques of storytelling and breaks several conventions, such as plot closure, to an aesthetically satisfying result. For instance, the point of view constantly switches between different characters, some of which never appear on the screen. This also makes it difficult to identify how much each player character is supposed to know about the mysterious story world that is full of secrets. Sometimes two focalization points for narration are actualized at the same time, represented by two streams of branching dialogues on the screen (see Fig. 3). As it is common in adventure games, dialogue choices do not affect the development of the main story; they seem to lead nowhere in most cases, revealing frequent disruptions of continuity and logic in the narrative. However, this discontinuity, which is responsible for numerous blank spaces in the story, is a deliberate aesthetic decision much appreciated by the core fan base of the game.

Image 3. Scene from Kentucky Route Zero Act IV (2016). A branching dialogue that constitutes the principal part of the game story is sometimes divided into two parallel tracks.

It can be argued that high artistic ambitions of the game’s creators may have alienated a broader audience of players: some reviewers on Steam describe it as too much of an ‘art house’ (Renegade Master, 2020) and even “A collection of ‘contemporary art exhibits ‘ masqueraded as videogame” (manola.mann, 2020). Despite all the blanks and dead ends (or maybe thanks to them, as we will see later) KRZ also has a thriving community of fans engaged into solving puzzles, interpreting and extending its fictional world, in the same way as Twin Peaks does.

Stop Making Sense: Fan Reading as ‘Topological Analysis’

One of the first noticeable similarities between Kentucky Route Zero and Twin Peaks is the importance of online communities in solving the fictional mystery. Back in 1990, Twin Peaks was one the first TV shows to initiate early message boards and discussion groups such as alt.tv.twin-peaks; crucial analytical tools in active fan reading. Besides, it was one of the first cases in the history of fandoms to apply technologies of archival preservation (namely, VCR tapes) for the needs of collective meaning making (Jenkins 1995; 2003). New interpretations are sometimes derived from the smallest and, probably, random details discovered after multiple replays of a particular scene. Jason Mittell describes this mode of analysis as ‘drillable engagement’, characteristic of so-called ‘forensic’ fandom (Mittell 2015, 289).

Ultimately, this mode of reading is similar to academic text analysis, and, first and foremost, classical philology. In the style of traditional literary scholars, fans drill into all possible references and influences (intertext), establish meaningful connections to the media that accompanied the game (hypertext) and inspect the artefacts within and beyond the game that would shed light on the production of the text (metatext). This mode of inquiry acknowledges the ’intertextual landscape’ that surrounds the original text and construct a ‘rhizomatic’ structure of meanings that fans traverse in their active co-creation of the enigmatic narrative. However, unlike academic researchers, fans do not care about the potential hierarchy of signs and meanings of ‘high culture’ (e.g. Jenkins 2003).

In the case of Kentucky Route Zero, such a reference would be One Hundred Years of Solitude (Elliott, Kemenczy, and Babbitt [2020] 2020); early Surrealist cinema can serve as an example in the case of Twin Peaks (Boulègue 2017). These references are acknowledged and often admired by fans, but they are as good for solving the mystery as any film goof. Similarity and connectedness are the most important factors, valued even more when totally unexpected.

In literature studies, the term ‘topos’ (‘topoi’) is used to denote common topics, shared tropes and borrowed motifs that appear in different works throughout the cultural history, especially in the German philology and the Russian scholarship that inherited from it, which can be seen in Bakhtin’s works (Somoff 2015). Recently, the concept of ‘topos’ has been rediscovered and applied to adventure games in transmedial story worlds (Schmidt 2020); we will return to the updated version of this concept later.

The search for ‘topoi’ holds a special place in the academic Twin Peaks scholarship, as well: we may find elaborate investigations on what ‘food’, ‘clowns’ (Boulègue 2017, 137–60) or ‘air’ mean (Rooney 2018) in the context of the show. Moreover, fan-driven analysis seems to be rather ‘topologic’ in connecting common places into a larger, not necessarily ‘true’ or ‘objective’, but often highly engaging perspective of a fictional world (see Boulègue 2017 for fan-driven cultural analysis; or Rosseter 2019 for purely fan analysis). We, as well, might want to indulge ourselves into the hunt for shared ‘topoi’ in the worlds of Twin Peaks and Kentucky Route Zero. For example, the power line is an important location in Twin Peaks Season 3 (and electricity in general carries many meanings in its world), and we also see a similar silhouette of a power line in the first scene in Kentucky Route Zero.

The game starts at the gas station in Act I, and the gas station is the place that spawns Evil in Twin Peaks Season 3. The gas station in Kentucky Route Zero is called Equus Oils. It has a giant horse head on the roof, which reminds us of the Silver Mustang casino. However curious, these are probably coincidences: Act I of KRZ was released in 2013, and Twin Peaks Season 3 premiered in 2017. We may still ask ourselves about the common source of these ‘topoi’, as well as many others, which would require us to ‘zoom out’ and look at these two stories within the larger ‘intertextual landscape’ of media.

Intertextuality: as Deep as the Code Goes

Studies of intertextuality in cinema started as traditional ‘toposforschnung’, but soon went beyond the search of similar imagery or motifs. In the most influential Russian work on intertextuality in cinema, The Memory of Tiresias (1998), Mikhail Iampolski criticizes this ambition of creating quasi-universal ‘symbolariums’ of cinematic images. Instead, he connects the ability of the viewer to create a cohesive narrative to their memory about previous cultural texts. He writes: ”The semantic fullness of any text is surely the result of its ability to establish a connection with the texts that came before it, and occasionally with those that came later” (Iampolski 1998, 8).

Such perspective places particular importance on the viewer who inevitably perceives the film through the lens of their experience with other media. Following the footsteps of Mikhain Bakhtin, Iampolski understands intertextuality as the transformative field of meanings at the intersection of <the perspectives of> the author and the reader (Iampolski 1993, 34, absent from the English edition). Umberto Eco offered a similar model of intertextuality, recently adopted for digital transmedia realms by Hanns Christian Schmidt (Schmidt 2020, 109).

Intertextuality – connectedness to the previous texts through the previous experience of the audience – is an important feature of every work of postmodernism. Twin Peaks is generally characterized as a postmodernist narrative that builds on a multitude of previous works and genres (e.g. Geller 1992). Demonstrating even higher self-awareness (probably required at this stage of development of the relatively underexplored medium of a video game), Kentucky Route Zero explicitly connects itself to the tradition of postmodernist literature. Its style is described as ‘magical realism’ in the official Steam store, due to its references to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Its developers confirm the connection, and frequently mention this novel as a source of inspiration (e.g. Han 2020).

The names of characters in KRZ encourage further intertextual investigation, as illustrated by its substantial Fandom Wiki. Cousins Shannon and Weaver, two important characters in the game, are both named Márquez. Moreover, Shannon’s name is most likely a reference to the mathematician Claude Shannon (“Shannon Márquez” 2014). Another important character is named Lula Chamberlain; her second name hints at William Chamberlain, the author of the surrealist novel The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed (1984) and the developer of the artificial intelligence program Racter (1984) that allegedly wrote that novel. Furthermore, the intertextuality of KRZ stretches beyond the text presented to the player: its fans have discovered a reference to the novel in the game’s files (”Lula Chamberlain” 2014). The ‘forensic’ fandom has literally taken the game apart in search of shared ‘topoi’.

In addition, this is where we may (or may not) find another reference to the work of David Lynch: Lula’s first name could be a reference to one of the two main characters in Lynch’s film Wild at Heart (1990), is a story of two lovers, Lula and Sailor. In Kentucky Route Zero, Lula acknowledges the romantic feelings of her former colleague Joseph but does not want this relationship at this point.

Image 4. Scene from Kentucky Route Zero Act II (2013). Lula Chamberlain is shown reading a rejection letter, probably a parody of the academic review process.

Hypertextuality: The Garden of Forking Dead Ends

The common understanding of hypertextuality starts with non-linearity of hypertextual works: they are often comprised from relatively independent fragments that can be consumed in a different order. Another frequent feature is the use of different media on one hypertext, such as, combining text, film and interactive (executable) programs (Bell 2010). From this perspective, KRZ is certainly a hypertext, complemented with Interludes that are included as a part of playing experience but do not move the story forward. The hypertextuality of Kentucky Route Zero does not end here: WEVP-TV, the fictional TV studio featured in Act IV, has its own website and several hours of original content (“WEVP-TV Broadcast History” 2017).

Even though the ending will not change depending on the choices made by the player, there will be slight, often purely poetic, differences in the game’s dialogues and scenes depending on the specific path through the dialogue choices and the scene sequences taken by the player. Thanks to this, KRZ makes an outstanding example of a linear but productively replayable game: in the end, we are left wondering what has actually happened, and we may want to replay different sequences in search for clues. Moreover, a dedicated player would go through all available content in the game to unlock additional achievements, while learning more about the strange world of ghosts in the static and underground bird songs featured in Interludes. Significantly, this is also how dedicated viewers engage with the complex story of Twin Peaks: The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer is one popular supplementary text to explore its world (see e.g. Mittell 2015, 299). Mittell refers to this book as one of the first canonical examples of ‘diegetic extension’ in American TV: an object from the story world enters the real world to extend the fictional universe.

KRZ features at least one ‘diegetic extension’ in the form of a separate digital artifact. Extending the universe of the game into the real world, Junebug, the fictional character from KRZ, has released a real-life album of aerial synth pop (“ambient whisperwave”, according to the fictional musicians themselves), on Bandcamp in 2020 (Junebug 2020). Unfortunately, the album is only available as a digital download, although Bandcamp also supports distribution of physical music records. However, it sets itself aside from the conventional forms such as an official soundtrack or even a rather paratextual interpretation of it by fans, such as interpretation of music from Twin Peaks by the band Xiu Xiu (Xiu Xiu 2016)). Even though we know that the music was written by the developers of the game, it is published in a way that suggests that the singer, Junebug, actually exists in our world.

The signature track from the album, “Too Late to Love You”, first appeared in Act III of Kentucky Route Zero. The song itself is a playable artifact in the game: the order of the lyrics depends on the player’s choices. In this way, the medium of a video game provides a unique opportunity for active involvement, although in a much more rigid scripted form than free interpretation of the text in the imaginary space between the reader and the writer/producer.

Image 5. Scene from Kentucky Route Zero Act III (2014). Performance of Junebug and Johnny at The Lower Depths, a bar reminiscent of Twin Peaks’ Bang Bang Bar.

The performance of Junebug and Johnny at the bar, The Lower Depths, in Act III — one of the most beautiful scenes in KRZ — is easily identified as a reference to Twin Peaks by its fans (as some of the game critics also note: see Turi 2015; Williams 2014). The ethereal music style, the visual palette, and the context of a night bar are reminiscent of Julee Cruise’s performances in all three seasons of the series.

Self-Reflectivity: The Randomness is What Makes it Realistic

Twin Peaks has always been self-reflective about being a TV show (see e.g. Geller 1992), and its metatextual quality has only amplified with time. One of the key scenes to express this self-awareness is smashing a television set at the beginning of Fire Walk with Me. This scene explicitly communicated the departure of David Lynch from the genre conventions of television (see e.g., McAvoy 2019; Joseph 2017). In a more recent example, Season 3 shocks the viewers with the gruesome death of two lovers. The young man’s work is to watch a shiny glass cube with vacuum inside that is also a portal to an alternative world — obviously, symbolic television. Agent Cooper himself appears in it at some point, when no one is watching, and this can also be a self-reflective gesture from Lynch; pointing at the expectations of his devoted audience who want ‘the old Cooper’ back. Meanwhile, the broader authorial ambition here is to show something that will figuratively blow its audience’s minds, as it literally, and shockingly, happens to the viewers inside the fictional world of the TV series.

As we have already observed in the example of The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed, the novel supposedly written by an algorithm and referenced in the game, Kentucky Route Zero contains many particular references to the history and the process of video game development, also adding a level of metatext to its narrative. The first character whom Conway, our first point-of-view character, encounters at the beginning of the game, is Joseph, a former game designer; one of the first things that Joseph does is to invite Conway (and the player) to the cellar where three ghosts, the recurrent characters named Emily, Ben and Bob, are playing a mysterious tabletop game. This game immediately invites us, the players, to see it as a model of the actual game we are currently playing. The fictional players describe it in the following way: “The randomness is what makes it realistic”, which may also be read as the key to KRZ’s own creative success.

Kentucky Route Zero is self-reflective about being a video game, so much that it becomes one of its major plot devices. Much of the game’s events revolve around the artistic research project XANADU that Joseph, Lula, and their colleague Donald undertook many years ago when they worked as project researchers at the university. Another important character, the already mentioned young mathematician Weaver Márquez, was also involved in the project as a disposable intern, which might or might not have led to her early demise. The university funding was not enough to finish the project, and the researchers parted their ways (note the critique of the ‘merit-based’ academic evaluation in Fig. 4). This part of the story supports the societal critique that forms the core message of the game.

One noticeable difference between Kentucky Route Zero and Twin Peaks is that the former asks much more straightforwardly political questions. Even in its most enigmatic Season 3, Twin Peaks still represents probably the most straightforward contemporary version of the universal fight between Good and Evil in their purest and most abstract form. For comparison, in KRZ, the greatest evil is represented by the Distillery, to which the inhabitants of Kentucky are indebted. The Distillery is yet another symbol of capitalism that drives the conflict of the overarching story across five acts and seven years in development. This does not make a very surprising discovery, although the fans of the game highly admire its political message. In the final Act V, the characters seem to arrive at a better world where they may hope to build a sustainable community after the flood. Still, two innocent horses will die in the end, no matter how well you play.

Metatextuality: Invitation to a Beheading of the Author

On this journey to a better future, the mission of Joseph, Lula and Donald is one of the mysteries that the player needs to uncover. According to the common interpretation of the game’s story, the goal of the project was to build a machine that documents the process of its own creation in the form of an interactive game with multiple possible endings. In Act III, the player learns that before wrapping the project up, Joseph, Lula and Donald undertook a scary trip into another world that may or may not have been the virtual world of the game inside the machine.

Whatever happened during that trip (there are different options), the project seems to have failed at the point of time when the player had first entered the game. At the fictional time point when the player enters the game, Joseph works at a gas station, Lula works as a clerk at a Bureau, despite her artistic talent and ambitions. Eventually, we find Donald in the cave, which he named Hall of the Mountain King – another musical reference to the piece by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg for the play Peer Gynt (1867) by Henrik Ibsen. This reference suggests that Donald expects supernatural troll-like entities to help him repair the computer and relaunch the mysterious XANADU.

In the universe of Twin Peaks, we find a predecessor to XANADU in the Blue Rose group lead by Gordon Cole (played by David Lynch himself). In both cases, the figure that stands for the external author is limited in their knowledge about the fictional world – and yet, they know everything somehow. Joseph, the former leader of the XANADU project, is blind; Gordon Cole of the Blue Rose secret society is almost deaf. In both cases, their impairment symbolizes their ability to penetrate supernatural mysteries: a ‘topos’ that can be traced to Greek legends. To make this connection clear, one of the options for the name of the dog that accompanies the protagonists in KRZ is Homer.

Moreover, these ambiguous metatextual ‘author-characters’ take a special place in the narrative. They seem to have the external knowledge about the making of the fictional world we found ourselves in, and they actively initiate the quest of the main protagonist to uncover the fictional mystery. Their role in the narrative is to destabilize the position of the ‘reader’ and to remind them that, by consuming these texts, the audience also participates in a collaborative game of meaning making (which also includes the author of this article). In KRZ, Donald has even authored a research paper titled “Literary Multitudes: Hypertextual Narrative as Poststructural Witness”. Unfortunately, this article does not exist in our reality, despite our burning wish to refer to it.

Among many others, a rather minor but highly self-reflective question is whether artistic research and the arts in general can be offer a viable career when funding for it is driven by business logic. The decline of the arts in a profit-oriented social system becomes a recurrent theme: another member of the XANADU project, Lula, has not realized her artistic ambitions, although her sculpture showed much promise, as we learn from yet another interlude, an installation of her artistic work. Furthermore, when the players pass the conference hall in the Kafkaesque castle of the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, they unlock a peculiar achievement: a bearded, barefoot person plays a beautiful piece of music on the organ. This character’s name is Will, and he appears later in the game on a boat named Mucky Mammoth; he used to teach French literature and drama at a university but his department (of course, in the humanities) was dismantled as a result of budget cuts. This leaves us, the academic audience, with far too familiar real-world concerns, but also with the homely feeling of belonging into the narrative of the game.

‘Cybertextuality’: the Player as a Hypertextual Witness

Does it matter, in terms of the narrative, that Kentucky Route Zero is a video game? Its metatextual references firmly locate it within the discourse of narratology in new media, even though its actual playability rarely exceeds conventional interactivity. However, the name Xanadu may be a reference to one of the first hypertext novels afternoon, a story (1990) by Michael Joyce, which also mentions the location named Xanadu. After the players discover XANADU in the game, they are invited to engage in an archaic textual adventure game within the game – a homage to the influential historical landmark, Colossal Cave Adventure, (1977) that the writer of the game Jake Elliott used to play as a child (Han 2020). The choices made in this small game within the game affect the dialogue and the interpretation of KRZ in general. The player character can even die in this nested game, although this is presented as an achievement in the actual game, accompanied with a condescending line: “Your score was 0 out of a possible 8192”.

This may be the rare case when the playing scholar can actually get the essential experience of an old school textual adventure that is explicitly required to be able to understand the whole concept of ‘cybertext’ (Aarseth 1997, 2). The concept of ‘cybertext’ has been proposed by the game studies scholar, Espen Aarseth, to present a new perspective on non-linear texts, first and foremost, in literature and games (Aarseth 1997). According to Aarseth, a cybertext is the exemplary representative of an ‘ergodic’ text, the text that requires a “non-trivial effort” to make sense of it due to its physical properties in the material world. Eye-movements and page-turning would count as a ‘trivial’ effort: a non-trivial effort would be, for example, selecting one of the many different dialogue options in a hypertext fiction, or, ideally, typing lines of text to advance the electronic game. The ideal ‘cybertext’ is a machine by itself, “a mechanical device for the production and consumption of verbal signs” (Aarseth 1997, 21), – just like the fictional XANADU.

Kentucky Route Zero simulates exactly this kind of interactive experience with its exquisitely written and designed branching dialogue trees. Furthermore, it offers even more creative ways to invite user input that generate unexpected feedback loops. The ‘reader’ of the game is invited to complete its ‘text’ in many different ways that often reference old or obsolete media artifacts, such as simulations of a textual adventure game, an AM/FM radio receiver, and an old phone connected to an automatic answering line in one of the Interludes. The player can press buttons with numbers on the phone to access the information about the mysterious Echo River, receive traveling tips, and other information such as “Catalogue of subterranean bird songs”. The conversation takes unconventional turns when the voice on the telephone suggests options such as “If you are holding a snake right now, press 4”, and then asks “How do you think the snake feels?”. This is a characteristic example of the overall surreal mood of the game: after a number of similar occasions, we start accepting the whole world of KRZ in its entire weirdness.

This assumption may help us to shift our perspective from singular recurrent signs and themes to a larger picture of the story world as a particular ‘topos’. As Schmidt suggests, the concept of ‘topoi’ in serial transmedia can be read twofold: as a vocabulary of particular recognizable ‘common places’ in an intertextual landscape and as a fictional ‘setting’ in whole (Schmidt 2020, 109). Besides, panning from regular recurrent tropes (‘building blocks’) to the repeated structural characteristics of the whole world (setting), we also acknowledge our metatextual position in relation to a specific transmedial universe, as well as our ability to expand it.

It is important where the story takes place, not just the vocabulary that is used to tell it. The player conceives the non-trivial topology of Kentucky Route Zero and its surroundings by navigating its ergodic maps that present additional puzzles and challenges[1]. It may take a while to reach all locations when driving the van in Act I, but then the rules drastically change when the characters travel across the same map on the back of the giant eagle Julian. The map of the game world was two-dimensional at the beginning of Act I, but it suddenly becomes three-dimensional at the end of it. Consequently, this peculiar way of mapping fails to create a continuous mental model of the story world, despite the many clues it provides. Similarly, to an extent, this is characteristic of the world of Twin Peaks, despite this town being firmly located in a recognizable region of the US, with its material and spiritual surroundings thoroughly mapped. Both Twin Peaks and Kentucky Route Zero are ‘topoi’ by themselves, and both of them belong to the same narrative ‘setting’. It is the surrealist, horrifying, and yet, homely and believable world of imaginary ‘dark Americana’, best represented by the trademark ‘Lynchian noir’ (Sheen and Davison 2004).

Both fictional worlds have blossomed on the same fertile ground of modern American mythology, defined by the great American Dream and the current reality of ‘the American nightmare’, as Sionhan Lyons describes it (Lyons 2017). Rachel Joseph labels this re-enchantment of the mundane American reality in Twin Peaks as ‘the Northwest Weird’ and explains it with the weirdness and the horror of reality itself. In her words, “the “weirdness” of the world and performance of Twin Peaks is the weirdness of reality itself” (Joseph 2017, 66).

As Lyons writes, the American nightmare is often understood as the American Dream destroyed by male-enacted violence and darkness. It is the answer to both the American Dream, embodied in the comfort of roadside diners and the famous cherry pie, and the American Nightmare, embodied in the real-life figure of the serial killer Ted Bundy. By choosing this third option, the fictional worlds in the American Weird setting surpass the linear logic of narration and engender an abundance of novel poetic and political meanings. They may not provide freedom of choice mechanically (as in a hypothetical adventure game with endless choices), but they do it conceptually instead, envisioning the way to escape from the American Horror when the American Dream ceases to come true.

Conclusion and Discussion: Is Everything a Cybertext Now?

One of the biggest mysteries of Kentucky Route Zero is its inconclusive ending. The supposedly main conflict between the hellish Distillery and the people of Kentucky is never resolved. Even more mysteriously, this does not prevent its numerous fans from enjoying it. The same can be said about the multimedia compendium of television, film, writing and music that is Twin Peaks today. In both cases, the authors encourage free interpretation of their art (see Sheen and Davison 2004, 3 on Lynch), and this process is particularly active in online fan communities. The quest, or the investigation, never brings the protagonists close enough to the answer. The ends are never tied together – rather, they multiply like Hydra’s heads. There is no key to this puzzle, at least, in the authorial intent, but the absence of a finite answer only extends the pleasure.

In the ideal cybertext, there are many paths throughout such text, and choosing one way eliminates the possibility of the plot resolved otherwise. Aarseth refers to this contradiction as ‘aporia’ (Aarseth 1997, 91). However, there is no ‘aporia’ in Kentucky Route Zero: alternative choices may reveal more beautiful poetic lines and scenes (such as the organ concert or caring for the unfamiliar snake), but they do not have any influence on the main conflict of the story between the people of Kentucky and the diabolic Distillery. From this perspective, KRZ remains a rather linear game with very little narrative ‘aporia’: it corresponds to the architecture of the vector with optional side branches, the most typical narrative structure, for example, in digitally augmented books (Ryan 2015).

The game scholar Souvik Mukherjee would categorize this type of a game as a ‘monorail’ narrative “where the entire sequence of actions is scripted quite restrictively” (Mukherjee 2018). Still, each replay would still present a unique ‘reading’ for each player, according to Mukherjee, even though the player’s choices do not matter much, apart from the order and the tempo according to which the story develops.

In the end, can we imagine Twin Peaks as a ‘cybertext’? It definitely has an element of ‘aporia’ in it: as long as the viewer believes that it was Leland Palmer who killed Laura Palmer, the intrigue is gone, and most of the show (probably the best part) stops making sense for this particular viewer. However, the fans of the show choose a different way to read it. Initially served to the passive ‘voyeur’ audiences of ‘soap opera’, Twin Peaks has evolved over more than 30 years of its presence in the global cultural memory. It most certainly requires a non-trivial effort of perusing a wealth of manifold media artifacts to make sense in its current state. This makes it possible to interpret Twin Peaks as a “choose-your-own-adventure” book with many alternative explanations and even plot twists. The cryptic ending of Season 3 brings to the fore this tendency for the extreme and then just leaves it there: after almost 30 years with Laura Palmer, we still do not know her secrets. All we know is that her father once killed her against the will of her creator.


All links verified 27.5.2021


Junebug. 2020. Too Late to Love You (music album). Bandcamp. https://junebug.bandcamp.com/album/too-late-to-love-you.

Xiu Xiu. 2016. Plays the Music of Twin Peaks (music album). Polyvinyl.

Video Games

Elliott, Jake, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt. 2013. Kentucky Route Zero (game). Available on Steam. https://store.steampowered.com/app/231200/Kentucky_Route_Zero_PC_Edition/.


Rosseter, Anonymous. 2019. Twin Peaks ACTUALLY EXPLAINED (No, Really) (video broadcast). Twin Perfect. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AYnF5hOhuM.

“WEVP-TV Broadcast History” (videoart). WEVP-TV. 2017. http://wevp.tv/vdb/.


Andriessen, CJ. 2020. “The Eternal Influence of Twin Peaks.” Destructoid, April 11, 2020. https://www.Destructoid.com/stories/the-eternal-influence-of-twin-peaks-582331.phtml.

Elliott, Jake, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt. 2017. “Notes on the TV Edition.” Cardboard Computer (blog). September 7, 2017. http://cardboardcomputer.com/2017/09/07/notes-on-the-tv-edition/.

Elliott, Jake, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt. 2020. Kentucky Route Zero Official Developer Wiki. https://github.com/dekuNukem/Kentucky_Route_Zero_Official_Developer_Wiki.

Green, Holly. 2017. “9 Games to Play If You Loved Twin Peaks.” Paste Magazine, May 19, 2017. https://www.pastemagazine.com/games/twin-peaks/9-games-to-play-if-you-loved-twin-peaks/.

Han, Karen. 2020. “The Strange Story Behind the Best Game of 2020.” Slate Magazine, December 9, 2020. https://slate.com/culture/2020/12/kentucky-route-zero-profile-best-video-game-2020.html.

“Lula Chamberlain.” 2014. Kentucky Route Zero Wiki. 2014. https://kentucky-route-zero.fandom.com/wiki/Lula_Chamberlain.

Seagrave, Richard. 2017. “10 Games That Fans of Twin Peaks Will Love.” GameSpew, May 23, 2017. https://www.gamespew.com/2017/05/10-games-that-fans-of-twin-peaks-will-love/.

SFWA. 2021. “SFWA Announces the 56th Annual Nebula Award® Finalists.” The Nebula Awards®. March 16, 2021. https://nebulas.sfwa.org/?p=6846.

“Shannon Márquez.” 2014. Kentucky Route Zero Wiki. 2014. https://kentucky-route-zero.fandom.com/wiki/Shannon_M%C3%A1rquez.

Turi, Tim. 2015. “Eight Games Inspired By Twin Peaks’ Weirdness.” Game Informer, April 6, 2015. https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2015/04/06/8-games-inspired-by-twin-peaks-39-weirdness.aspx.

Welsh, Oli. 2020. “Kentucky Route Zero Review – Haunting Drifter’s Odyssey Comes to an End.” Eurogamer. January 28, 2020. https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2020-01-28-kentucky-route-zero-review-haunting-drifters-odyssey-comes-to-an-end.

Williams, G. Christopher. 2014. “Transcending Fiction: ‘Too Late to Love You Now’ and ‘Kentucky Route Zero.’” PopMatters. May 21, 2014. https://www.popmatters.com/182075-transcending-fiction-too-late-to-love-you-now-and-kentucky-route-zer-2495656878.html.


Aarseth, Espen. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Barrett, Kyle. 2017. “Smashing the Small Screen: David Lynch, Twin Peaks and Reinventing Television.” In From Approaching Twin Peaks: Critical Essays on the Original Series, 47–64. Jefferson: McFarland.

Bell, Alice. 2010. The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction. New York: Springer.

Boulègue, Franck. 2017. Twin Peaks: Unwrapping the Plastic. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Geller, Theresa. 1992. “Deconstructing Postmodern Television in Twin Peaks.” The Spectator 12 (2): 65–71.

Iampolski, Mikhail. 1993. Pam’at’ Tiresija. Moskva: RIK “Kultura” (In Russian).

Iampolski, Mikhail. 1998. The Memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and Film. Oakland: University of California Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 1995. “Alt.Tv.Twinpeaks, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery.” In Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, 51–69. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2003. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. London: Routledge.

Joseph, Rachel. 2017. “‘I’ll See You in the Trees’: Trauma, Intermediality and the Pacific Northwest Weird.” In Approaching Twin Peaks: Critical Essays on the Original Series, 65–80. Jefferson: McFarland.

Lyons, Siobhan. 2017. “David Lynch’s American Nightmare.” In From Approaching Twin Peaks: Critical Essays on the Original Series, 128–42. Jefferson: McFarland.

McAvoy, David. 2019. “‘Is It About the Bunny? No, It’s Not About the Bunny!’: David Lynch’s Fandom and Trolling of Peak TV Audiences.” In Critical Essays on Twin Peaks: The Return, 85–103. Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-04798-6_6.

Mittell, Jason. 2015. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York: NYU Press.

Mukherjee, Souvik. 2018. Video Games and Storytelling: Reading Games and Playing Books. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Rooney, Monique. 2018. “Air-Object: On Air Media and David Lynch’s ‘Gotta Light?’ (Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017).” New Review of Film and Television Studies 16 (2): 123–43. https://doi.org/10.1080/17400309.2018.1447275.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2015. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schmidt, Hanns Christian. 2020. Transmediale Topoi: Medienübergreifende Erzählwelten in seriellen Narrativen. Marburg: Büchner-Verlag (In German).

Sheen, Erica, and Annette Davison. 2004. The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions. London: Wallflower Press.

Somoff, Victoria. 2015. “Metapragmatics, Toposforschnung, Marxist Stylistics: Three Extensions of Veselovsky’s Historical Poetics.” In Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics, 65–89. New York: Fordham University Press.


[1] Maps are also important in Twin Peaks. Its complex topography has been mapped by the Native Americans in rock art. This map explains the world in its unity of natural and supernatural powers, and the relations between them, such as the Black Lodge and the White Lodge that represent Evil and Good. Lakes are also meaningful in the landscape around Twin Peaks, and we can find a variety of lakes on the map of KRZ.

1–2/2021 WiderScreen 24 (1–2)

Expanded Lynch: Synaesthetic Intermediality as Immersiveness in “Industrial Symphony No. 1”

David Lynch, expanded cinema, immersion, Industrial Symphony No. 1, intermediality, performance, sensoriality, synaesthetic

Fátima Chinita
chinita.fatima [a] gmail.com
PhD, Associate Professor
Film and Theatre School of the Lisbon Polytechnic Institute, Portugal

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Chinita, Fátima. 2021. ”Expanded Lynch: Synaesthetic Intermediality as Immersiveness in “Industrial Symphony No. 1””. WiderScreen 24 (1-2). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2021-1-2/expanded-lynch-synaesthetic-intermediality-as-immersiveness-in-industrial-symphony-no-1/

Printable PDF version

David Lynch’s cinematic work has always been intermedial, engaging other art forms. In this article I focus on a variety of performatic intermediality, which I deem responsible for Lynch’s atmospheres and his motto of entering into another world. I posit that Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted is the key to Lynch’s artistic hybridity as well as the core of the immersiveness his films impart to the viewers. However, this is done differently in the eponymous stage performance (1989) and the deriving television film (directed and edited by Lynch himself, broadcasted in 1990). The theatrical performance is one big, long mood, as Lynch observed, whereas the film version expands upon the immersive experience of the stage and creates a novel approach to audiovisual works in the line of Gene Youngblood’s concept of expanded cinema, and more specifically the “synaesthetic mode”, highly dependent on a stylization achieved in the post-production stage. This spectatorial experience stimulates the sensorium in an almost erotic manner, as Laura U. Marks contends of “haptic eroticism”, and spreads the self-reflexive properties of the film to the entire cinematic medium, as Gilles Deleuze claims of his “crystal-image”. Thus, the more the film commingles (self-)reflexivity and sensoriality, the more it reinforces the viewers’ immersiveness and allows them to enter into another world.

Introduction: Intermediality as the expansion of an artistic practice

This article explores different meanings of the word “expansion” as it produces effect in David Lynch’s oeuvre and specifically Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted, a twofold artwork with crucial significance. First, Lynch’s oeuvre should be considered full-fledged intermedial, and not just cinematic and/or painterly. Yet, its intrinsic performativity should be positioned as a specific type of intermedial relationship within media practice without exactly forming an intermedial aesthetics per se. Second, the film version of Industrial Symphony No. 1 is an artistic expansion of the stage production and not an adaptation thereof. It paradoxically induces in the viewers both a media consciousness and what I consider to be a sensorial immersion in the artwork, corresponding to Gene Youngblood’s concept of “synaesthetic cinema” and how it is perceived by the audience. Third, the opening up of the viewers’ senses corresponds to the medium’s flaunting of its properties in the form of a Deleuzian flux I call the “becoming-cinematic”.

Artistically, besides filmmaking, David Lynch is mostly associated with painting. For example, Allister Mactaggart, in The Film Paintings of David Lynch (2010), aiming to guide the readers towards the visual content of Lynch’s films and away from the story and overall narrative comprehension, misguidedly uses the expression “film paintings” in an analogy with Lynch’s activity as a painter. In reality, none of the six chapters of Mactaggart’s book, nor the introduction and conclusion, examines the art of painting per se, and the aforementioned expression is mostly a catchword.[1] Lynch himself often admitted his inclination for artistic forms other than painting. He confessed that he wished to proceed towards cinema precisely because he felt that painting lacked some properties, notably movement. In an interview with Starfix he combines this with the entrance into another world: “What I missed when I looked at paintings was the sound. I waited for a sound to be heard: a wind blowing, perhaps. I also wanted the frame borders to disappear; I wanted to get into the painting. It was a spatial impetus.” (1990, 87; quoted by Chion 2001, 19, my translation).

I argue that David Lynch’s artistic output needs to be considered differently, especially the cinematic work around which everything else revolves. To begin with, Lynch’s artistic versatility, which encompasses a broad spectrum of activities, needs to be taken into account. Indeed, his skills include painting, drawing (comic strips), photography (e.g., the old factories series), design (furniture construction), and music (he composes, writes lyrics and plays the guitar). I wish to address his work as being – and having always been − deliberately intermedial in a general but not universal sense. In this I follow Ginette Verstraete’s idea that ”[I]ntermediality refers to crossovers and interrelations taking place between the arts and the media” (2011, 7), which necessarily involve more than one medium (Rajewsky 2010, 51). In other words, I contend that Lynch’s cinematic work has always knowingly engaged other art forms. Nevertheless, the case has very seldom been made for the intermedial significance of his work. To my knowledge, only one book expresses this leaning in the title: David Lynch: mondi intermediali (edited by Cinzia Bianchi and Nicola Dusi 2019).

In approaching Lynch this way, though, I do not intend to develop an intermedial meta-theory, but only to focus on specific media aspects pertaining to the involvement of the senses and one intermedial property in particular, which I define as performativity. I align myself with Jens Schröter’s “formal discourse” on intermediality (2011, 3) in which different media can be united by a common property, or media substratum. I contend that Lynch’s intermediality is a result of the desire to combine movement (present in cinema), volume (the cornerstone of theatre), sound (the essence of music), and the obliteration of the screen as such. This combination opens up a field of what I term “performatic intermediality” which calls for further research, especially since it is largely responsible for Lynch’s immersive atmospheres.

This concept of mine is applicable to all art works where performance takes place, whether it is theatrical or not, unlike Chapple and Kattenbelt’s notion, which restricts intermediality in performance to theatre practices that become visible only through the process of (live) staging (2006, 12). Katti Röttger, who argues for a theatre performance as an event, that is, “an intermedial process that […] makes the audible and the visual phenomenon appear and become accessible to the experience” (2013,7, emphasis mine) is closer to my meaning. She does not think in terms of a theatre performance as a pre-given whole (a hyper-medium that contains other media), but as an interaction between media which makes them occasionally, and separately, perceptible to the spectators. The main property of the performance is, therefore, its ability to change within a performatic context. As an art with actors and/or shapes in motion, film also performs but in different ways. Some of these are entirely technical and pre-recorded but made interchangeably visible and audible during the film works.[2] Within the sphere of intermediality, Schröter too, considers that a medium − as technology or art form – is not a priori constituted but rather formed in action and that intermediality in a more restricted sense is the process of evincing a relationship between ”observable media forms” (2011, 16). I am particularly interested in the self-reflexivity of this process (see Paech 2000, 13).

Lynch always claimed that films are “another world to go into”, and that they “are more like fairy tales or dreams” than anything else (Lynch in Breskin 1990, 66). Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted, with music composed by Angelo Badalamenti, is the perfect example of performatic intermediality. In this article, I analyse its double existence: first as a 45-minute stage performance (1989) and then as a film made for television (1990). Although both products stemming from the same authorial vision are very different and therefore produce dissimilar experiences in their respective audiences, both of them are immersive and extremely appealing to the senses. Moreover, the film version can be considered an example of Gene Youngblood’s “synaesthetic cinema” (1970), a concept used to describe non-commercial films in which the most important is the “design” (plasticity, poetic form, sensual imagery) and not the narrative. For the most part, these are non-normative films, which act upon the viewers’ senses and subscribe to a novel and artistic cinematic language.

Before advancing any further, I must state that immersion is not to be understood here in the technological sense of virtual environments where the sensorial properties of the real world are substituted by digital properties (Mestre 2005, unpaginated), or as a simulated entrance into a three-dimensional environment (William Gibson in Packer and Jordan 2001, xxxi). Neither is it to be taken in the fictional sense of having the feeling of being mentally [or emotionally] absorbed by stories, diegetic worlds and characters (Gander 2005, 11). According to Jane H. Murray, “[I]mmersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water” (1997, 98, emphasis mine). It is precisely in its non-literal meaning that I use it in this article.[3] As long as there is a “diminishing critical distance” and ”an increasing involvement” on the part of the viewer, a plunge into another universe, an ensuing submersion takes place (Grau 2003, 13).

My method is entirely empirical, based on the viewing of all of Lynch’s films and the prior consideration of their characteristics. In my monograph (Chinita 2013) on Inland Empire (2006), I had the opportunity to analyse in detail how the director composes his atmospheres to generate immersion and thematically deploy his artistic motto: “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream” (quote from the Upanishads, Lynch 2006, 139). My argument here is personal and qualitative, therefore open to criticism. The research focuses less on Lynch’s own discourse in interviews than on the intermedial analysis of the selected study case. If anything, this article aims to be a twofold contribution: to intermediality studies and to David Lynch’s. The main argument I make is that Industrial Symphony No. 1, usually considered a minor piece in Lynch’s artistic career, might, actually, be the opposite: the very key to Lynch’s artistic hybridity.

1. Performance as three-dimensional ambiance

Theatre is fundamental in Lynch’s cinematic career. It has been a crucial leitmotif from Eraserhead (1977) to Inland Empire (2006) – by way of the Victorian theatre in Elephant Man (1980), the cabaret stage in Blue Velvet (1986), the Italian theatre-like curtains of the Red Room in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and the Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive (2001). Many of the most iconic and climactic scenes in Lynch’s films are staged in such locations.

Image 1. Eraserhead (1977) (left). Image 2. Inland Empire (2006) (right).

In addition, Michel Chion observes that more than a stage, real or metaphorical, the theatre in Lynch’s films is part of a compositional strategy wherein the sets are filmed in the manner of a physical proscenium arch. The furniture is positioned frontally in relation to the camera and the characters are centred in the frame. Within this spatial pattern, the geometrical positioning of sofas, curtains and spotlights adds to the overall theatrical effect. However, rather than keeping the audience at an emotional distance, by revealing the intradiegetic viewers’ placement and the theatrical apparatus in a Brechtian manner, Lynch accomplishes the opposite. These theatrical scenarios add to the audience’s sensorial engulfment in the world of the film, which presents viewers with an over there which is visually and aurally appealing. The large bright red curtains and the zig-zag-patterned floor in the Red Room of the Twin Peaks universe is just such an example, meant to corroborate the concept of entering another world, which the film addresses. Sound, being largely pervasive and indivisible, in these cases is made even more palpable due to the assumed three-dimensionality of space. This is, probably, one of the reasons why sound helps “to propel us into a film, to make us feel inside it”, as Chion claims (2001, 54−55).

Image 3. The Red Room in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).

By recurrently using theatre as a leitmotif and a compositional strategy in his films, David Lynch openly affirms his allegiance to performatic intermediality. However, at the end of the 1980s a new opportunity arose to use it in a different way.

In 1989, the Brooklyn Academy of Music invited David Lynch and his long-time collaborator Angelo Badalamenti to produce a 45-minute stage performance for the New Wave Music Festival. Despite the notoriety generated by the event at the time, having to do with Lynch recently acquired indie-crossover status in the film industry,[4] relatively few people could attend the presentation, which had only two sessions, both performed on November 10. The following year (1990) the stage performance was released on VHS and laserdisc, in a version edited by Lynch himself and intended for television only. Both versions of Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted are extremely important for an analysis of intermediality in Lynch’s artistic work.

In order to unravel the connection between art and ambiance and their ability to transpose the spectators into another world filled with stimuli, which immerse their reason and senses, I need to consider each product (or version) separately, as well as some aspects of the medial transposition from one to the other.

The performance Industrial Symphony No. 1 was presented on a large stage whose stage design remained unchanged from beginning to end. However, the manipulation of lights, sound and smoke completely transfigured the scenery from one moment to the next. The stage was generally very dark, crossed by searchlights and filled with vapour produced by smoke machines; abrupt and loud noises, such as a siren or wind blowing, filled the space, enhancing visual and audio textures and producing an immersive feeling in the viewers. The only protagonist was the singer Julee Cruise, dressed as an ingénue in a white prom night attire and featuring a blonde wig. This was presumably a hinting at the character of Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, whose television pilot Lynch had already shot. The stage was visited at times by a topless woman writhing herself in a seductive pose like Lula in Wild at Heart (played by Laura Dern), and a man suspended from cables emulating her paramour Sailor (played by Nicolas Cage) in the same film, which was under production at the time.

The spectacle contained other bizarre characters, such as a dwarf (played by Michael J. Anderson, a Lynch regular), a tall clarinet player, industrial workers, female dancers, naked toy dolls descending from above on cables like rappelling parachutists, and a gigantic deer-like figure. All of them evolved around and literally on an industrial landscape, featuring a high voltage tower, pipes, cables and a large derelict automobile. Leitmotifs from the Twin Peaks universe − both the television series and the cinematic prequel − were all around: a log of wood being sawed, evoking lumberjacks; a visceral deer seemingly skinned, calling to mind the woods and violence; the car, evoking joyrides; and so on. The whole experience was just overwhelming and all-encompassing, triggering the spectators’ senses and enveloping them in a non-stop flux of images and sounds. This is important for two reasons: one of them intermedial, the other ontological.

Firstly, the performance was a musical event. It was composed of ten segments − they cannot really be considered musical numbers as the show flowed from one to the other in one big musical continuum. The great majority of them were sung in playback (only Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart was sung live [Video 1.]); one of them was essentially spoken (with Michael J. Anderson verbalising two different roles) and three others were instrumental. The avant-garde Italian intellectual Ricciotto Canudo claimed that music and film evoked grandiose feelings, were magically suggestive, and conveyed the most profound sensuality (Morel 1995, 72).[5] For Jacques Aumont, music is plastic (”plastique”), poetic and has emotional properties (2003). The performance Industrial Symphony No. 1 tried to highlight these features, but combining them with eminently theatrical ones.

On the one hand, it seems to me that Lynch and Badalamenti chose to use the oxymoron Industrial Symphony, not to deprecate the nature of their work in an ironic fashion, but rather to enhance their very serious purpose of putting on an important musical work, which could expand the audience’s awareness of the musical theatre medium. Industrial Symphony No. 1 was not a symphony by any account, as it was centred on a pop singer and contained electronic music. It was not a stage musical either since it had no story, only a state of mind and the feeling of sadness pertaining to a supposedly heartbroken girl who was left by her lover. This situation is actually seen in a filmed prologue shot by Lynch with the actors Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage, who were under contract to him at the time for Wild at Heart. Nor was Industrial Symphony No. 1 an opera, notwithstanding its mixture of music and text, because these are both rather abstract, operating at a symbolic level. In sum, the whole show was about ambiance. Lynch himself states that Industrial Symphony No. 1 is “one big, long mood” (quoted by Zyber 2012), following his recurrent statement about cinema: “A sense of space is so critical in cinema, because you want to go into another world. Every story has its own world, and its own feel, and its own mood” (Lynch 2006, 117).

Images 4−5. Two wide shot images from the stage, resembling the audience’s experience.

On the other hand, Industrial Symphony No. 1 was presented live to an audience. It was a hybrid performance operating in consonance with a Baconian raw logic of sensations. Its aim was “[N]ot to represent but to present… [a] genuine creation, which unfolds in a realm that can only be understood via sensation – viscerally” (Meier 2012, 126). Its sheer presence, its theatrical immediacy, was used for sensorial impact and perceived by the spectators in the auditorium, enveloped as they were by the smoke, the darkness, the filtered lights, the clangourous soundscapes, as well as struck by the performers’ gestures and bodies (sometimes perceived floating in space). This was an experience, not an object − as Ivana Brozić claims of theatre in general (2012) − here further heightened by specific performative circumstances. Indeed, the spectators were not only co-present in the overall space of the performance (the auditorium, if not the stage), but they were made a more integral part of it than they would be in a film theatre in front of a finished, immutable product.

However, Brozić’s insistence on corporeality as being eminently theatrical and her comment that “[T]he imaginary worlds, the sensations and the significations theatre is said to create, are ultimately located in the spectator. They are a result of perception” (2012, 144) are problematic when applied to Lynch’s work Industrial Symphony No. 1, because the exact same conditions pertain to the film version. Ultimately, they are a result of the performative intermediality as I conceive of it.

Secondly, the aforementioned ontological problem is the performatic nature of Industrial Symphony No. 1 itself. Brozić’s condition for theatrical intermediality resides in mediation (i.e., “the material process of media realization”, Elleström 2014, 11). For her, this mediation occurs live on stage without any subsequent technology of communication, a specific technical apparatus for reception, which is the primary condition of existence for cinema. However, she does not consider one single modality of mediation, but several operating together: “[Theatre] is multimedial, an environment created by a multiplicity of mediations (of which the performer is only one) and full of internal allegiances and conflicts”. Put this way, both artistic versions entitled Industrial Symphony No. 1 are multimedial and both combine live action with technology, because they unite several media, which can always be told apart from each other, within one single art form (Clüver 2007, 25; Verstraete 2011, 9).


Video 1. Julee Cruise / Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart.

The theatrical performance contained one instance − the song Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart − in which three TV sets were brought in and placed at the front of the stage in order to show a video live feed of Julee Cruise in the trunk of a car singing directly to a handheld onstage camera. Although the whole performance took place live on stage, this particular moment is occurring live on video as well with the help of technology, being, therefore, twice mediated.[6] The film version, on the other hand, contains the audio-visual material recorded during the live performance in which the actors’ bodies were serving as mediators, but mixes it with subsequent use of technology in the process of editing and requires yet further technology for reception. Nonetheless, since it is a film made for television, the reception also took place live in that medium. Brozić’s idea, which is based on the here and now of theatre, does not take into account the hybridity factor to which both theatre and cinema are increasingly prone. Therefore, although her adjective “subsequent” is still central to her idea, I prefer to focus on the multimediality involved and pay equal attention to the production and the reception apparatuses.

According to this rationale, neither version of Industrial Symphony No. 1 is entirely theatrical nor cinematic; rather both of them are performatic. Their intrinsic hybridity, as a combination of both art forms and inherent mediations, invalidate neat categorizations.[7] Although I designate the two instances of the artwork as, respectively, theatre performance and film version, I do so for the sake of clarity, since neither of them corresponds to the traditional output of either artistic form.

For example, both instances of Industrial Symphony No. 1 are self-reflexive and meta-medial in that they force the spectator to be aware of the conditions of technological reproduction, usually embedding other technical media in the overall performance. What is most particular about them, however, is that they reinvent the relationship between the body and the voice of the performer by resorting to the use of technology. The result is a type of ”ventriloquism” which Jelena Novak calls ”dissociated voice” (2012, 107). Since Julee Cruise sings in playback for most of both art works − although she has a microphone in her hand in the opening song Up in Flames − she is “problematizing and redefining” the musical genre conventions, as Jelena Novak claims that post-opera does for opera (Meurer 2014, 41). By separating the actual voice of the singer from the song that she seems to be vocalising, Lynch anticipates his discourse on illusion and unreality contained in the “No hay banda!” skit staged in the Club Silencio scene of Mulholland Drive (2001). Even in Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart, the actual voice is physically disassociated from the (reproduced) body.

Image 6. Live video feed in Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart (left). Image 7. The dissociated voice in Club Silencio (right).

Entering into another world is an overall concern of Lynch, and mediation as the realization of medial properties attracts the viewers’ attention to the spatial meaning of medium as something which is in a middle position (therefore, possibly in transit to something else). The narrative immersion implied in the penetration of another spatial and/or cognitive reality by the characters (e.g. the Red Room in Twin Peaks) equates with the affective immersion experienced by the spectators upon coming into contact with a unique artistic reality (the famous “Lynch world”) itself filled with specific atmospheres. In films, it is not the immediacy and the liveness of the performance that create and sustain this feeling, but rather a different use of the affects, as a mixture of emotions and senses. Thus, as I will argue next, the film version of Industrial Symphony No. 1 artistically expands upon the stage performance.

2 Sensorial expansion and synaesthetic cinema

The video prologue, a telephone conversation between the character of the Heartbroken Woman (Laura Dern) and the Heartbreaker (Nicolas Cage), provides the contextual framework for understanding Julee Cruise’s performance as someone else’s dream, as suggested by the film’s subtitle. She is referred to in the end credits of the film version as the Dreamself of the Heartbroken Woman; her universe, which is the filmic Industrial Symphony No. 1, is a world in its own right, cognitively entered into by a character. However, I am not particularly interested in this expansion, which is merely narrative. Lynch has always posited that his main interest in narrative resides in the possibility of building worlds filled with mystery and not in the transmission of a clear story. Lynch’s acknowledgement that he wants to be engulfed in his own atmospheres is much broader than that and has transcendental overtones.

In the very beginning of the book Catching the Big Fish, which serves as an abridged version of his personal aesthetics, Lynch states: “The more your consciousness – your awareness – is expanded, the deeper you go towards this source [The Unified Field], and the bigger the fish you can catch” (2006, 1). This is his formula for obtaining inspiration and, consequently, for directing inventive films. In Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood declares: “Thus, by creating a new kind of vision, synaesthetic cinema creates a new kind of consciousness: oceanic consciousness” (1970, 92). The two statements seem to echo one another, although in interviews Lynch never once refers to Youngblood’s philosophy, nor do I claim that he had any knowledge of it. I only intend to stress the artistic and sensorial interconnection in terms of how films are perceived by both men.

Gene Youngblood advocated an “expanded cinema” predicated on a creative, artistic and innovative approach to art, perceived as a catalyst of change (in a social sense as well) (1970). As I already mentioned here, the real core of this expanded cinema was its “design”, that is, its plastic and poetic form and its sensual imagery. The then newly-available image-making technologies allowed for an expanded communication, where art became an “environment” (43). This was made possible by different venues for art consumption, including films and installations in museums and art galleries. In addition, the filmic experimental trend of the 1960s benefited greatly from the existence of specialised arthouse movie theatres. This rather mild, because incipient, immersive conception of art coexisted with a self-reflexive quality.

Such seeming paradox was due to the “synaesthetic mode” (42), which together with “an expanded consciousness” on the part of the audience (41), unafraid of physical stimuli and conceptual work, formed a new type of vision. The film artists committed to the synaesthetic mode had the declared aim of rejecting linear plots (and traditional drama altogether) and professed a new synaesthetic reality instead of a merely representative realism. Form overpowered narrative content in a purposely chaotic fashion. In synaesthetic cinema, according to Youngblood, the “artist shoots and manipulates [the] unstylized reality in such a way that the result has style” (107). This process, achieved entirely in the post-production stage, is described by Youngblood as “post-stylization” (107) and often consists of a juxtaposition of incongruities, deliberate alterations or distortions, and a record of the process of its own making. All of this was integral to the result and the viewers’ experience of the films. According to Youngblood, the works made in compliance with the synaesthetic mode evince a “structural relation between the parts and the whole” (85). Thus, the films are fusions of disparate and unusual materialities. For example, incongruous juxtapositions are obtained through overlapping superimposition, which is a form of syncretism, a combination of several forms into one single unified form in perpetual flux. Images fuse constantly with others to the point of indiscernibility. “In synaesthetic cinema they are one total image in metamorphosis” (87); “Synaesthetic cinema is a space-time continuum” (81).

In the film version of Industrial Symphony No. 1, the audio-visual shots are really indiscernible from one another, better falling under Gilles Deleuze’s general category of “images” (1985), as I have posited elsewhere concerning Inland Empire (Chinita 2013). Since for Deleuze the notion of “image” is abstract and not reducible to pictorial representation alone (e.g., it also includes sound), the term seems completely appropriate in this case. In Industrial Symphony No. 1 images and sounds are in permanent mutation, metamorphosing into something else, usually via the technique of superimposition and/or long dissolves; they exemplify Youngblood’s synaesthetic film as “one continuous perceptual experience” (86), albeit composed of discrete elements. Shots are truly fused together.

Image 8. Deleuze’s “image”: discrete elements fusing into one another via superimposition.

Deliberate distortions occur whenever there is an interaction of proportions. Since, according to Youngblood, “[T]he fundamental subject of synaesthetic cinema – forces and energies – cannot be photographed” (1970, 87), the result is a seeming visual magma made to be experienced by the viewer rather than watched. Overexposures, flashes, conflicts of volume and scale, macro close-ups, and strobing lights, all mentioned by Youngblood as synaesthetic cinema resources, are featured throughout the film version of Industrial Symphony No. 1. The contrasts are nearly made palpable, generating an “almost visceral, tactile impact” (100).

Images 9–10. Visceral, tactile impact generated by the use of close-up.

In Image 10, a close-up of Julee Cruise’s face, the viewer perceives something like an indented facies. Although Cruise’s face is not physically carved, the projection of images over her figure generates that impression. This extremely visceral outcome is a direct result of the cinematic technique of superimposition and would not be perceivable as such from afar in the stage version of Industrial Symphony No. 1. In CBF, Lynch observes: “While many sets are good enough for a wide shot, in my mind they should be good enough for close scrutiny, for little details to show” (2006, 117). In the film version, the director has managed to blend together very dissimilar shot scales in one single Deleuzian image, thereby conjoining the wide shot of the stage with the detailed close scrutiny possible in film. In Image 11 the singer on stage seems to be replicated, not on a screen as is usual with live video feeds, but in the foreground of the self-same image. It is an illusion, a faux raccord, but one that plays with the simultaneity of different perspectives provided in different shot scales. “Synaesthesis is the harmony of different or opposing impulses produced by a work of art. It means the simultaneous perception of harmonic opposites” (Youngblood 1970, 81).

Image 11. Harmonic scale opposites in one single “image”.

In Touch, Laura U. Marks writes about “haptic eroticism”, a fluctuation between the proximal and the distant: “In the sliding relationship between haptic and optical, distant vision gives way to touch, and touch reconceives the object to be seen from a distance” (2002, xvi). It is the dialectic between the surface (of the body) and the depth of field of the image (seen from afar) that is erotic. “Haptic images are erotic regardless of their content, because they construct a particular kind of intersubjective relationship between the beholder and image” (13), Marks claims. In extreme close-ups, which in many cases prevent the correct apprehension of the object/person being filmed, the viewer is so close to the image that, in a sense, there is no barrier between him/her and the film matter. Among the pro-haptic properties mentioned by Marks, one finds videos on film, over- or underexposure, blots of light, silhouettes of human bodies, layered images. [8] Texture is so enhanced that the viewers are immersed through their sensorium. Lynch’s technique in the film version of Industrial Symphony No. 1 can be said to approximate Marks’s theory, accomplishing haptic eroticism and the consequent immersion. However, there is one significant difference between Marks’s theory and Lynch’s practice. Indeed, the film director does not accomplish this result through a dialectic in which one image substitutes another sequentially; rather he does it in the same image, at the same time, as is demonstrated by Image 11.

By using superimposition as an editing device (i.e., a form of post-stylization according to Youngblood) to simultaneously highlight detail and the general space in the film Industrial Symphony No. 1, Lynch does not envelop the viewers/auditors in an atmosphere in the same way that he does the performers of the eponymous stage production. In the film version, the audience is not engulfed by another world; their immersion works in a different way. The film viewers are literally drawn towards the Deleuzian image in its very flux. They appropriate the said image in its haptic eroticism, its intrinsic movement between distance and proximity. The superimpositions are conceived of as a velvety textural skin, that the viewers/auditors want to touch with their whole bodies as much as they want the film to touch their sensorium. For the duration of the film, the audience lives in a state of amazement, of cognitive suspension, which is why Brechtian effects are neutralised. Thus, the haptic eroticism experienced is twofold: two types of material are opposed inside one single image (which is never steady but prolongs itself into another one) and this dual effect is reproduced in the viewers in connection with the reception of the entire work as a whole (they feel very close to the work, while simultaneously perceiving it well). They do not identify with characters, they engage with forms and materials instead. Thus, Marks’s haptic eroticism becomes more than a modality of viewing; it is a mode of experiencing. As a synaesthetic film, Industrial Symphony No. 1 is magnetically immersive and is reminiscent of the lyrics of a song very dear to David Lynch: “Bluer than velvet was the night / Softer than satin was the light” (Blue Velvet, by Bobby Vinton, 1963).

Image 12. A feeling of blueness.

As explained by Youngblood (1970), some experimental films of the 1960s, such as Michael Snow’s, overtly address the self-reflexive nature of cinema as a medium. They are formal experiences meant to break the illusion and reveal the cinematic technique to the viewers. The film version of Industrial Symphony No. 1 achieves exactly the same without endangering the sensorial seductive power of Lynch’s overall universe. This amounts to a perfect combination of immersive and self-reflexive properties. Examples of the latter are the disclosure of the apparatus during Rockin’ Back Inside my Heart and the paraphernalia of cables for the suspension of characters in mid-air. Thus Lynch anticipates here what he will accomplish later in full fictional form in the metacinematic Mulholland Drive (2001), arguably the most seductive of Lynch’s features to date.

This seeming paradox is once more easily resolved with the help of Gilles Deleuze. In his book Cinema 2 – The Time-Image (originally published in French in 1985), the philosopher distinguishes the style of modern cinema from that of its classic predecessor by claiming that it consists of “images” which are intrinsically double. This bifacial image is endowed with an internal reflection, made up of the constant permutation of its two opposing sides. While one side has actuality, the other remains virtual, and vice versa. An image is considered “actual” (or real) by Deleuze when it has screen presence, and “virtual” when it is relegated to the background (in other words, it is not the main focus of the film, but lingers somewhere else). In Lynch’s film version of Industrial Symphony No. 1 the same permutation takes place, but because the film evolves as a fast-paced flux in which superimpositions are always taking place, real and virtual coalesce to a larger extent than they do in other films. The blown-up doubles of the singer Julee Cruise superimposed over her flesh-and-bone likeness may be considered the virtual part of the image, whereas the more clearly in focus and corporeal singer is the actual side.

Katerina Krtilova, in her philosophical approach of the concept of intermediality, considers that a medium is not a fixed ideal entity, but rather a “reflective structure” in permanent mutation (2012, 39). In Deleuzian terms, although he does not focus on intermediality, this corresponds to the notion of “circuit”. Bifacial images are constantly transitioning to something larger than themselves. Individually, they are an embryo (”germe”) that propagates the reflex to the whole environment (”milieu”), and thereby reveals the latter as an institutional construct. Therefore, by using superimpositions and all the other aforementioned cinematic (and synaesthetic) techniques in the film version of Industrial Symphony No. 1, Lynch manages to transform each and all of his “images” in this work in a spark that generates the crystallization of the whole film as such and of its medium as that of cinema. Therefore, I claim that this becoming-cinematic is the ultimate expansion of Industrial Symphony No. 1. This assertion obviously denies all claims that consider this film a mere remediation of the stage performance made for the secondary medium of television. Philosophically and artistically, this work is no mere recording. Rather, it prepares the viewers for the more complex practices evinced in later Lynch films, namely Inland Empire, which is the sum total of the director’s techniques and themes. Furthermore, by anchoring the entire crystallized universe on the senses, Lynch creates an ode to synaesthetic film and contributes in no small measure to the cinematic path of immersion.

Image 13. The Deleuzian crystal-image, or the synaesthetic film at its best.

To conclude: Immersion in the other world of art

My purpose in this article was not to analyse how the stage performance of Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted is transposed to the screen, which would be a case of transmediation (“the translation of one medium into another”, according to Verstraete 2011, 9). Although, strictly speaking, the transposition of a number of core features (musical form, oneiric content, female protagonist, setting) from the stage to the screen makes the film a complex transmediation of media products (Elleström 2014, 24), my focus was not on the media products themselves but on the effects they generate on the viewers. Therefore, I disregard the fact that, in this case, the film (“the target medium”, according to Lars Elleström) “triggers representations of multifaceted media traits similar to those of a source medium” (2014, 22). For me, the two versions of Industrial Symphony No. 1 are two completely different outputs, although they were made from the same original visual and sonic materials. What interests me is the transposition of an atmosphere from one medium to another, which takes place in the interactions between media but is not media-dependent. This means it is not dependent on the specificity of either qualified media or art form involved, but works around them to achieve a similar result through different processes.

According to Daniel Yacavone, each film is a singular holistic entity (a “film world”), possessing “pronounced sensory, symbolic, and affective dimensions. It provides ‘virtual’ and actual experiences that are at once cognitive and immersive and sensuous” (2015, xiv). Although he is thinking of fictional cinema endowed with a story (a diegetic world or “world-in”), he claims that what really characterises a film as a world, from a philosophical perspective, is the way the materials are used by the filmmakers (“world-of”). Rephrasing this closer to my purposes here, a film is a world whenever there is a medial presentation of the very possibilities of cinema. According to Yacavone, film worlds are immersive experiences for the viewers because, “unlike paintings, films as aesthetic objects have an actual temporal dimension and an event character” (2008, 93). Although Industrial Symphony No. 1 is a string of performances more than anything else and has no story to which the viewers’ may adhere, like other films it too conveys “a unique world-feeling, recognized by the viewer as such” (98) pertaining to the single artistic style of its creator, David Lynch.

If this apparently unassuming work for television, unjustly discarded by many as of no real artistic import, is to be deemed the key to Lynch’s overall cinematic practice, that is due to its performatic intermediality, which also exists in other subsequent Lynch films, but in an attenuated form. Ultimately, by expanding the viewers’ consciousness through an artistic and specifically cinematic modality which Gene Youngblood calls “synaesthetic cinema”, Lynch’s film version of this work reaches the pinnacle of his intermedial art. The sensorial and artistic expansion produced by Lynch in the film version of Industrial Symphony No. 1 itself equates the sensations and the resultant immersion generated in the film viewers, and their full adhesion to the auteur’s universe. Lynch’s peroration of entering another world is an invitation for immersion and expanded consciousness.


All links verified 25.5.2021

Research material

Lynch, David (dir). 2010. Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted. 1990; Italy: Raro vídeo – arte, cinema, visione. DVD.


Aumont, Jacques. 2003. ”Les Fantômes de l’opéra.” In Le Septième art: Le cinéma parmi les arts, edited by Jacques Aumont, 151–169. Paris: Éditions Leo Scheer.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: The MIT Press.

Breskin, David. 1992. Inner Views: Filmmakers in Conversation. Faber and Faber: Boston and London.

Brozić, Ivana. 2012. “Theatre and Music: Intermedial Negotiations.” In Travels in Intermedia[lity]: Reblurring the Boundaries, edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, 137–151. New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press Hanover.

Chapple, Fred and Chiel Kattenbelt (eds). 2006. Intermediality in Theatre and Performance. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.

Chinita, Fátima. 2013. O Espectador (In)visível: Reflexividade na Óptica do Espectador em Inland Empire, de David Lynch. Covilhã: Livros Labcom.

Chion, Michel. 2001. David Lynch (nouvelle édition mise à jour). Paris: Cahiers du cinéma.

Clüver, Claus. 2016 [2007]. ”Intermediality and Interarts Studies.” In Changing Borders: Contemporary Positions in Intermediality, edited by Jens Arvidson, Mikael Askander, Jørgen Bruhn, and Heidrun Führer: 19–37. Lund: Intermedia Studies Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1985. Cinéma 2 – L’image-temps. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

Dusi, Nicola and Cinzia Bianchi (eds.) 2019. David Lynch: Mondi intermediali. Milano: FrancoAngeli.

Elleström, Lars. 2010. “The Modalirities of Media: A Model for Understanding Intermedial Relations.” In Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, edited by Lars Elleström, 11-48. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Elleström, Lars. 2014. Media Transformation: The Transfer of Media Characteristics Among Media. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gander, Pierre. 2005. “Two Myths about Immersion in New Storytelling Media” (1999) In Lund University Cognitive Studies, 80.

Grau, Oliver. 2003. Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: The MIT Press.

Krtilova, Katerina. 2012. “Intermediality in Media Philosophy.” In Travels in Intermedia[lity]: Reblurring the Boundaries, edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, 37–45. New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press Hanover.

Liptay, Fabienne and Burcu Dogramaci, eds. 2015. Immersion and the Visual Arts and Media. Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi.

Lynch, David. 2006. Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. London, New York et al: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin.

Mactaggart, Allister. 2010. The Film Paintings of David Lynch: Challenging Film Theory. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect.

Marks, Laura U. 2002. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Meier, Julia. 2012. “Genuine Thought is Inter(medial).” In Travels in Intermedia[lity]: Reblurring the Boundaries, edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, 125–136. New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press Hanover.

Mestre, Daniel R. 2005. “Immersion and Presence”. http://www.ism.univmed.fr/mestre/projects/virtual%20reality/Pres_2005.pdf.

Meurer, Ulrich. 2014. “Horse in Motion: On the ‘Rationalities’ of Cinema and Opera.” Kinetophone: Journal of Music, Sound and Moving Image, no. 1 (2014): 35–58. https://www.academia.edu/7756338/Horse_in_Motion_On_the_Rationalities_of_Cinema_and_Opera.

Morel, Jean-Paul, ed. 1995. L’usine aux images: Ricciotto Canudo. Paris: Éditions Séguier /ARTE

Müller, Jürgen E. 2010. “Intermediality Revisited: Some Reflections about Basic Principles of this Axe de pertinence.” In Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, edited by Lars Elleström, 237–252. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Murray, Janet H. 1997. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in the Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Nagib, Lúcia and Anne Jerslev (eds). 2014. Impure Cinema: Intermedial and Intercultural Approaches to Film. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Novak, Jelena. 2012. “Singing Corporeality: Reinventing the Vocalic Body in Postopera.” UvA- DARE: Digital Academic Repository of the University of Amsterdam, 90–107.

Paker, Randall and Ken Jordan (eds). 2001. Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Paech, Joachim. 2000. “Artwork – Text – Medium. Steps en route to Intermediality”. Translated by Thomas La Presti. Keynote speech delivered at ESF Changing Media in Changing Europe, Paris May 2000. http://www.joachim-paech.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/ArtWorkMedia-1.pdf.

Rajewsky, Irina O. 2010. “Border Talks: The Problematic Status of Media Borders in the Current Debate about Intermediality”. In Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, edited by Lars Elleström, 51–68. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Röttger, Katti. 2013. “The Mystery of the In-Between: A Methodological Approach to ‘Intermedial Performance Analysis’.” Forum Modernes Theater, no. 2, 105–116. https://dare.uva.nl/search?identifier=257dc177-23a9-4499-acb7-42ead6cc84a1.

Schröter, Jens. 2011. “Discourses and Models of Intermediality.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 13, no. 3, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.1790.

Verstraete, Ginette. 2011. “Intermedialities: A Brief Survey of Conceptual Issues.” Kunstlicht 32, no. 3. https://tijdschriftkunstlicht.nl/wp-content/uploads/kunstlicht.medialiteit.ginette-verstraete.intermedialities.pdf.

Yacavone, Daniel. 2008. “Towards a Theory of Film Worlds.” Film-Philosophy 12, no. 2, 83–108. http://www.film-philosophy.com/2008v12n2/yacavone.pdf.

Yacavone, Daniel. 2015. Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press.

Youngblood, Gene. 1970. Expanded Cinema. London: Studio Vista.

Zyber, Josh. 2012. “Auteur Theory: ‘Industrial Symphony No. 1’,” Bonus View (blog). Posted on August 20, 2012. https://www.highdefdigest.com/blog /industrial-symphony-david-lynch/.


[1] Oddly, Lynch’s unparalleled cinematic style, which is loosely considered surrealist, is very often compared with those of his favourite painters Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper, neither of whom is Surrealist in the strictest pictorial sense.

[2] I extend the concept of performance to a metaphorical agency and/or context that surpasses the field of Performance Studies, although institutional performances are, indeed, privileged by Lynch, as I will refer shortly.

[3] Cf. Immersion and the Visual Arts and Media (Fabienne Liptay and Burcu Dogramaci, eds. Brill/Rodopi, 2015), in which immersion is applied to painting and architecture, photography and cinema, as well as installation art.

[4] With Blue Velvet, released in 1986, Lynch had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director at the 1987 edition of the Oscars.

[5] Ricciotto Canudo, ”Musique et cinéma, langages universels”. Originally published in Comoedia, No. 3176 (August 1921) and reprinted in L’usine aux images (Morel 1995).

[6] I do not call this remediation because it is not an instance of a qualified media being re-inscribed in a different technical media (Ellleström 2010, 31). This representation of the media of video and television occurs within the performance and as an integral part of it, and not as a conscious borrowing of media by an altogether different media (see Bolter and Grusin 1999, 44−50).

[7] In Intermedial Studies the word “hybridity”, is usually taken as a synonym of intermediality. Paech mentions it, cursorily, as a form which is a mixture of media (2011, 2). Nagib and Jerslev (2014, xviii−xxiii), in following André Bazin’s defence of impurity in cinema, try to override the limitations of media specificity, therefore calling attention to the ideological overtone contained in the term “hybridity”, and which multimedia, that is also a mixture of media, does not possess. As a feature of intermediality at large, hybridity is employed here as a highly positive term. See also Müller 2010, 345−346.

[8] Richard B. Woodward, in an interview with Lynch in 1990 (“A Dark Lens on America”), mentions the components of David Lynch “consistent film style”: slow dissolves, spotlighting, extreme close-ups, figures who emerge out of darkness, the enhancement of textures, (facial) deformities, exaggerated noise, banal dialogue, ridiculously specific and eccentric characters, among other aspects (Breskin, 1992, 57).


“Classics Age” – The Flexibility of Planned Obsolescence in Terms of the Classic Finnish Board Game Kimble

adaptive obsolescence, classics, cultural neo-production process, forced obsolescence, planned obsolescence

Lilli Sihvonen
Degree Programme in Cultural Production and Landscape Studies
University of Turku

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Sihvonen, Lilli. 2020. ”’Classics Age’ – The Flexibility of Planned Obsolescence in Terms of the Classic Finnish Board Game Kimble”. WiderScreen Ajankohtaista 14.10.2020. http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/ajankohtaista/classics-age-the-flexibility-of-planned-obsolescence-in-terms-of-the-classic-finnish-board-game-kimble/

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Planned obsolescence most commonly refers to the deliberate limitation and weakening of the use, usability and durability of a product or service. Its purpose is to stimulate consumption. Planned obsolescence is harmful for both users and the environment, and has been studied from both economical and technological aspects. It also has several sub-concepts, methods and techniques. This article focuses on conceptual flexibility of planned obsolescence in terms of the classic Finnish board game Kimble. It asks, how does a classic product change the purpose, outcome, and definition of planned obsolescence? This article presents the author’s lifespan theory of classic products: the cultural neo-production process in which the same product is re-introduced to the users several times, and is partly influenced by planned obsolescence. This article suggests new forms of obsolescence, adaptive and forced obsolescence, that stress the fact that obsolescence is a flexible and ubiquitous phenomenon. It is not always planned, nor is its outcome always perpetual. Classic products need obsolescence to exist.


“Because classics do not age” is a line recently used in the Finnish Fazer Company’s commercial for Domino cookies. Domino cookies have been on the market since 1953, and are considered somewhat of a basic treat during Finnish coffee breaks. “It is a classic and original”, and a according to the advertisement, “not old”. [1]

Classics are considered to have a recognised value, they are historically memorable and linked to a canon, a group of generally great works (Mäyrä 2008, 55). Stewart Woods defines classical board games as games that do not have any specific author, company or organisation who can claim ownership, for example, games such as chess. Mass-market games, on the other hand, are those that dominate market shelves and are associated with the general public. They can also be divided into three sub-categories the first being successful family games from the 19th and 20th century. According to Woods, these are considered classics as their rules are known to the general public. However, their status is based on manufactured nostalgia and effective marketing. (Woods 2012, 17–19.)

Classical products are supposed to endure both physically and psychologically, not to become obsolete like everyday products. Planned obsolescence, the limitation of product use and durability, is hardly associated with physically durable and classic products. Nevertheless, classics do age, but the increase in their value and enduring status is what makes their aging process significant. The aging process also takes different forms: some classics have limited availability and are withdrawn from the markets, while others retain their demand and go through some minor modifications over the years. Some classics utilise a combination of these forms.

In my own research, I am particularly interested in the lifespan of classics and the functions of planned obsolescence. In this article, I will consider how planned obsolescence is connected to the lifespans of classic products using the Finnish board game Kimble as an example. My research question is: How does a classic product change the purpose, outcome, and definition of planned obsolescence?

To understand why this question is asked, I will introduce the concept of the cultural neo-production process in which classics are created, and how obsolescence is part of that process. This process describes a lifespan where a (classic) product is re-released more than once, and subsequently reflects one form of product relationship, i.e. our attitudes towards products that endure and those that do not. (Sihvonen 2014.)

In addition, to understand the significance of planned obsolescence in the context of classics, its use and connotations need to be redefined. For instance, classic products that are constantly on the market and physically durable require new descriptions such as adaptive obsolescence or forced obsolescence: product modifications made voluntarily or those that are demanded by influences exterior to the company. Obsolescence is not always planned, but rather is something that occurs over time. This makes obsolescence a flexible term. I will present these definitions later in this article.

Next, I will discuss planned obsolescence more profoundly. After which I will describe the connection of planned obsolescence to the concept of the cultural neo-production process and make some remarks on its relation to other lifespan terms. Then, I will introduce the classic Finnish board game Kimble along with my research material and methods. Following on from this, I will demonstrate my research findings and point out how a classic requires different descriptions of obsolescence. In the last section, I will conclude my arguments.

A very essential part of my own research is that obsolescence can co-exist with other phenomena, thus, it is involved in different processes. This article is part of my upcoming dissertation in which I study lifespans of classics; my aim is to create a theoretical framework of the cultural neo-production process which can be applied to different kinds of cultural products to explain the societal and material meanings related to re-releasing classics.

Planned Obsolescence

There are several definitions of planned obsolescence, and most of them emphasise its negative aspects. Vance Packard, for instance, defined obsolescence as a strategy that indicates a throwaway spirit and affects both the product’s shape and mental attitude of the consumer (Packard 1960, 65). Giles Slade sees planned obsolescence as “the catch-all phrase used to describe the assortment of techniques used to artificially limit the durability of a manufactured good in order to stimulate repetitive consumption” (Slade 2006, 5). Both distinguish three types of obsolescence, which are very similar to one another: Packard introduces the obsolescence of function, quality and desirability – where a new, better functioning product outmodes the old one, or the product breaks down or wears out, or the styling becomes old-fashioned and less desirable in the consumer’s mind. (Packard 1960, 66–67.) Slade ties his three types of obsolescence to historical events: technological obsolescence can be traced back to the introduction of the electric starter in automobiles in 1913, as can psychological obsolescence to the annual model change, again, adopted by the car industry in 1923. Adulteration, ergo, the practice of using inferior materials and the manipulation of the failure rate of products, began during the Depression. (Slade 2006, 4–5.)

These definitions have been the basis of my own previous research. I have referred to planned obsolescence as a method that limits the use of a product or a service technologically, materially, or psychologically. A better functioning product replaces the old one, the product is forced to break down or wear out at a given time, or new and better-looking products lure the consumer to abandon the old ones. However, newness does not guarantee quality: new jeans can be manufactured to look old and worn out, which can also make them wear out more easily. (Sihvonen 2014, 3, 51.)

A considerable amount of research has focused on, for instance, how to delay (Lawlor 2015), plan for (Burns 2010), or regulate (Maitre-Ekern and Dalhammar 2016) obsolescence, the problems and questions it raises and the extremely short lifespans of products (Packard 1960; Slade 2006; Newman 2012). In practice, these studies focus on the problems and harmful effects of planned obsolescence, such as, an unsustainable economy, an increase in environmental issues, the transportation of e-waste into developing countries, and climate change. Jonathan Chapman, for instance, notes that the decline in natural sources is not entirely due to increasing population, but also because of the unsustainable design of products (Chapman 2015, 4–5). Paul Connerton, in turn, has claimed that obsolescence is a form of forgetting. To keep on consuming, people have to abandon and forget old products. (Connerton 2008, 66–67.) Roland Strausz claims that obsolescence is a tool for the consumer to punish the manufacturer for poor quality. One loses costumers quickly if the quality is not improved. (Strausz 2009, 1405–1406.)

Researchers, as well as politicians, have suggested solutions such as legislation that guarantees product durability, energy efficiency, sustainability, and ecological products. The European Union, for instance, is aiming to secure the possibility of product repair and to make it more profitable for the consumer instead of buying a new product [2]. In some cases, product durability can also be a problem: if there are more energy efficient products available, should the consumer purchase a new, less energy consuming product while the old one is still functioning (Maitre-Ekern & Dalhammar 2016)? There is also the danger of seeing planned obsolescence where it does not exist. Slade reminds us that long term wear and tear is normal (Slade 2006, 5). However, the issue still remains that many product’s operational life is far shorter than their material life; we are producing enduring waste (Chapman 2015, 10–13).

The research concerning planned obsolescence is also evolving. In 2016, the themes of the conference Planned Obsolescence: Texts, Theory, Technology focused on planned obsolescence as an analytical tool to study literary and artistic works, and their facets, e.g., representational and theoretical. The presentations discussed issues such as the ephemeral nature of street art and self-destruction as a radical form of obsolescence.

Moreover, presentations were given on Packard and Slade’s definitions are from an American point of view, however, there are several other opinions how obsolescence has developed. Overall, this is a phenomenon whose qualities are – ironically – constantly reconstructed and negotiated by different scholars, users, producers and manufacturers.

Product Lifespan and the Cultural Neo-production Process

From the planned obsolescence point of view, the studies of product lifespans focus on use and usability. A product can be both physically and psychologically untenable for use even though the material itself could withstand more wear and tear: the product can wear out and be discarded, but exist as waste for a very long time. (See Chapman 2015.) The material is not designed to be obsolete.

The product lifespan can be understood as the period between the acquisition and the final disposal of the product, whereas the market lifespan refers to the market availability of the product (Park 2010, 78). Product longevity, on the other hand, is shaped by user behaviour and socio-cultural factors – not from the design and manufacturing processes like physical durability (Park 2010, 78; Cooper 2010, 8–11). The consumer can find ways to repair the product, and so make it last longer. Culture anthropologist Ilmari Vesterinen has a broader view on lifespan: it starts from the birth of the object (the moment of manufacturing or existence), and ends with the death of the object, the disappearance from existence. (Vesterinen 2001, 33–36.)

To illustrate the life of classic products and products that are re-released more than once, I have developed the concept of the cultural neo-production process to describe the controlled alternation between planned obsolescence and revivification. Planned revivification is a term coined by the sociologist Fred Davis who used it to signify a nostalgia-based resuscitating of products (Davis 1979, 133–134). The cultural neo-production process is of my own development, but its roots lie in the idea that Davis introduced in his book Yearning for Yesterday – A Sociology of Nostalgia (1979): planned obsolescence and revivification should be built into old media products like movies and television shows so that products should first have a short life on the market, after which they would disappear with the introduction of new products (planned obsolescence). Then, several decades later the products would have a nostalgic re-introduction (planned revivification) (Davis 1979, 133–134; Sihvonen 2014).

While Davis never elaborated further on replays, apart from his idea that companies would have nostalgia specialists determining the specific times for reintroductions (Davis 1979, 133), reappearances have become the nature of media products to some extent. Old television series are repeatedly broadcast. On special occasions, such as anniversaries, films such as Titanic and Jurassic Park are often re-released not only on television, but also in cinemas. Some companies, e.g., Disney, are known for their strategy of withholding their products from consumers and re-releasing their classic films only once a decade (Wasko 2001, 44–46).

Building on this, in my previous study I have recognised and separated different phases in the process by using a media product as an example. The cultural neo-production process consists of the original production phase, neo-production and resting phase(s), and can thus entail several market life spans. The original production phase is a unique phase in which the product’s possible future reappearances are determined. After the markets tire of the product, it is then directed to its first resting phase by planned obsolescence, where it will stay for a certain period of time, as determined by the producer. To the consumer this means that the product is not available for purchase. The first neo-production phase is activated after the resting phase. Nostalgia, modifications and updates are methods that are used in the comeback to active consumers to repurchase the product. This is both obsolescence and revivification: each re-version of the product makes the previous one obsolete, either by ending its manufacture or sale possibilities or by turning the old one into something old-fashioned. The new version also revitalises the product in general. (Sihvonen 2014, 81–89.)

As Davis suggested, the most common explanation for this kind of revival of products would be nostalgia. Svetlana Boym defines nostalgia as longing for a time that no longer exists or has never existed. According to her, nostalgia is the sentiment of loss and displacement, and it reappears as a defence mechanism during hard times. (Boym 2001, xiii–xiv.) Paul Grainge has claimed that nostalgia is the result of certain technological transformations and strategies of niche marketing and not a reflection of a mood of longing (Grainge 2000, 29.) Toni Ryynänen and Visa Heinonen note that there is no unambiguous definition” of nostalgia. They claim that nostalgia is mainly based on childhood memories and has been used in the literature to refer to memorable experiences. They have studied recalled consumption experiences, and found different temporal structures that involve nostalgia. (Ryynänen & Heinonen 2017.)

Indeed, there seems to be a whole economic structure behind nostalgia, not just a longing for bygone days and products. While I admit that nostalgia is a strong and significant influencer in the cultural neo-production process, it is not the only facet, nor the most interesting one to study. For instance, what happens to a classic during the process of planned obsolescence, e.g., what modifications are made or how does it develop otherwise, – these are far more interesting questions. In this article, I wish to draw attention away from nostalgia, and focus on how the board game Kimble has changed overtime, how the changes are justified by the manufacturer and seen by the users, and how these changes reflect conceptualisation of planned obsolescence in the cultural neo-production process.

Case Product, Research Material and Method

As Davis focused on media products, and I myself have in my previous study used a film as an example product, it is now time to explore other product types that are known to reappear. The usual market life-span of a board game is only a few years (Heljakka 2010, 23). Of course, the game’s life continues among the players, and analogue games might preserve playability longer than digital games. Digital games can face rapid technological obsolescence when applications, technical supports and updates cease, or the physical disks corrode (See Newman 2012, 11, 16–19). Board games are prone to other forms of obsolescence depending on, for instance, how they are manufactured and from what they are manufactured.

Kimble (see Image 1) is one of the traditional and popular board games in Finland. It was introduced into the Finnish market in 1967 and has been in stores ever since. It is produced by the Finnish board game company Tactic Games Ltd (known before as Nelostuote)., which was founded in the same year. Kimble is based on the American game Trouble. Aarne Heljakka (Sihvonen 2019), who founded Tactic Games, and his family received Trouble as a gift from their American relatives. The game became popular among the children in the family, which made Heljakka realise that the game might sell well in Finland. He bought a license to manufacture and sell the game, and the production began in the family’s garage where the game boards and game packages were manufactured by family members. The game was named Kimble after Dr. Richard Kimble, a character in the television series The Fugitive, which was popular on Finnish television in the 1960s.

Image 1. The game board of the original Kimble version. Lilli Sihvonen 2015.

The idea of Kimble is to go around the game board and run away from the other players’ game pieces. The board is composed of a square-shape but with eight plastic sides and a game track of small slots where players insert their game pieces. Each player has a set of four game pieces of either blue, red, yellow or green. The “Pop-O-Matic” die container is in the middle of the game board. To roll the die, the player pushes the Pop-O-Matic. The game starts when the player rolls six”, and is allowed to move one piece to the starting point. Six” always allows another roll. Pieces are moved according to the die, and the game board is circled clockwise. If a piece lands on a taken slot, this piece eats” the other one which is sent back to the home base to wait for a new six”. The winner is the one who first lands all their pieces on the finish. Kimble is a fast-paced, intense and loud game; not only do the players make a noise but especially the Pop-o-matic produces a loud sound. The game is also easily turned into a drinking game in which the rules are slightly modified and an alcoholic drink serves as punishment, – this is popular among students in a human sized version. (See Sihvonen 2017; Sihvonen 2018.)

The research material consists of the facets of manufacture and production, the users, and the product. These three different facets represent the actors that take part in the cultural neo-production process. The first part of the research material, that is the manufacture and production facet, consists of interviews I conducted in 2015. I interviewed five specialists working for Tactic Games Ltd, three of them descendants of Aarne Heljakka: CEO Markku Heljakka (the founder’s son and now a former CEO), creative manager Katriina Heljakka[3] (the founder’s grandchild), and sales manager Kalevi Heljakka (the founder’s son, retired). The two other specialists were the graphic designer Jussi Wallenius and the production manager Hannu Tuomola (retired). The interviews focused on the history and development of Kimble, and on the interviewee’s own professional background and experience. They have all worked for the company for several years, especially the members of the Heljakka family, who began in childhood or adolescence.

The second part consists of the responses to the Kimble online inquiry I conducted in November 2015. I received altogether 247 responses, out of which 184 were women, 51 men, and 12 did not either answer the gender question or answered ’other’. The largest respondent groups were students (105) and workers (96), and those born in 1980s and 1990s. A more detailed demographic background description is given in the two charts below.

Figure 1. Demographic background of the Kimble online inquiry.
Figure 2. Demographic background of the Kimble online inquiry.

The inquiry form included 23 Kimble or board game related questions, but here I will only deal with the responses to the questions 17. Which Kimble versions do you own or recognise and 18. Which Kimble version do you consider the best and why because these questions specifically focus on different Kimble versions. Question 17 had 21 different Kimble versions as options: the ones that had been published in Finland and I had documented so far. The options ’original version’ and ’other’ both included an open-ended text section for details: in the ’original version’ the time of purchase year was specifically asked in order to determine the exact version they were familiar with, and in the option ’other’ the participants were questioned as to whether they either owned or recognised Kimble versions that were not included on the list. All the questions on the online inquiry were mandatory, so both questions 17 and 18 had 247 responses. Altogether 102 respondents, who either owned (had owned) or recognised an original version, gave an estimate as regards the purchase year, and 12 respondents mentioned either owning or recognising a Kimble version not on the list.

For this article, I have been particularly interested in what modifications have been made to which versions and why, and how users have perceived these changes. Both thematising and content analysis have been used in analysing the data. Thematising can be used to compare the occurrence of the themes that will enlighten the research problem. However, Eskola and Suoranta argue that thematising does not necessarily guarantee a very deep analysis. In order for it to function well, an interaction between the theory and empiricism is needed. (Eskola & Suoranta 2014, 175–182; see also Tuomi & Sarajärvi 2013, 93.) I have divided the interview material into four different categories: history and stories, modifications, permanent features, and users and user culture. These categories have been the themes of my previous research articles, and they also represent the different sections of the cultural neo-production process. For this article, I have separated the discussion of the modifications from the research material.

Content analysis is applied to both research materials. Content analysis is used to examine how or what has been written or spoken about the subject under analysis. It is usually used to quantify the content of the text by calculating individual words as well as sentences, and to compare qualitative research material in order to make generalisations. (Eskola & Suojajärvi 2014, 186–189; see also Tuomi & Sarajärvi 2014.) However, there are differences in understanding content analysis. For instance, Tuomi and Sarajärvi note that (at least in Finnish language) analysing (sisällönanalyysi) and separating (sisällön erittely) the content of a text into units and to present it quantitatively are two different aspects of the analysing method. In the first, the content is described verbally, while in the latter it is presented more as numbers/figures. (Tuomi & Sarajärvi 2014, 105–107.) Furthermore, Lindsay Prior has suggested thinking of content analysis as a hybrid method, combining both qualitative and quantitative modes of inquiry, and it is not uncommon to use content analysis along with various other methods (Prior 2014, 359–379). Although I have quantified the data and calculated the number of certain types of responses such as how many users have or have not noticed any of the modifications, which Kimble versions are in question and what is the users’ response to modifications, I describe the results verbally when analysing them.

As Arjun Appadurai has noted, we are not to think of objects as just commodities. We are to follow the things themselves in order to find human transactions that enliven things. (Appadurai 1986, 3, 5.) Therefore, the third part consists of product documentation I gathered in the same year. I photographed and examined over 30 different Kimble versions including both the original and themed versions that had been published up to that date. A themed version combines the product with a character or theme: the company buys a license which gives the rights to do this. The character is like a new costume on the product, but the product keeps its distinct features. (Heljakka 2011.)

Kimble was Tactic Games’ first product, and one of the first games to be manufactured from plastic in Finland, which gives it a historically significant context. Sihvonen and Sivula have previously noted that the game was memorable in the company’s history. It has been recognised as a classic by both the company and the players. (Sihvonen & Sivula 2016.) It resists the traditional forms of obsolescence, and demands a renegotiation: as the interviewees argue, the game has always been manufactured to be physically durable. Aarne Heljakka even advertised the game’s durability by standing on it without breaking it [4]. Even now, it is difficult to break Kimble, and it wears out slowly. Kimble makes a most interesting case since it is not planned to become obsolete, and the original version does not have actual resting phases. However, the renewing of the original version and the introduction of the themed versions point to a cultural neo-production process. In the next section, I will further discuss the relation of the experts’ arguments and users’ perspectives in terms of adaptive and forced obsolescence.

Adapting or Forced Obsolescence?

As pointed out by Davis, consumers are encouraged through nostalgia to purchase products (Davis 1979, 133–134). In the cultural neo-production process, this applies especially to consumer groups who are reacquainted with the product and who have the potential to develop a nostalgic interest towards it. My studies have also shown that it is useful to the producer to design permanent and recognisable features in order to create a sense of familiarity and trust towards the product. To attract new consumers but also to offer something new to the existing ones, the product is modified and updated by renewing specific parts of its design, materials, production or marketing. (Sihvonen 2014; Sihvonen 2017.)

The changes made to a classic product are executed with serious consideration, and are rarely radical or quickly produced as in planned obsolescence. By adaptive obsolescence, I refer to modifications and improvements that are made voluntarily and gradually. These modifications are caused by something external to the company, such as consumer feedback, fashion, or safety concerns. Obsolescence is still relevant here since the product is in the cultural neo-production process and its previous version is rendered obsolete. The modifications to the original Kimble demonstrate the gradual development and adaptability of the product.

The original Kimble has been updated seven times in 40 years (1967–2007) (see Image 2). At first, Kimble greatly resembled its paragon, Trouble. The front cover of the package was a photograph portraying a family of four playing the game. The hole in the middle of the front cover was meant for the customer to push the Pop-O-Matic in the shop before purchasing the game. In 1972, the cover changed from a photograph to a drawing, yet its portrayal as a family game and the hole in its cover remained. The visual design changed considerably in the third version in 1977 when Kimble’s new theme was established: a blue background with just the game board on it, and no hole in the cover. The next four versions have consisted of small adjustments that have kept the theme recognisable for the consumers. The front cover has only changed from a photograph to a computer-generated image of the game. The company’s graphic designer says that these adjustments are done approximately every ten years, usually when the game has its anniversary.

Image 2. The development of the original Kimble. Lilli Sihvonen 2015.

Slade notes that psychological obsolescence means creating concern and shame about being old-fashioned. Its specialised form is the obsolescence of style, which is supposed to steer our attention to the object’s visuality and design. (Slade 2006, 50–53.) This is something the consumers are supposed to experience, but companies are prone to it as well: keeping up with the changing visual designs. Changing the visual design is merely an adaptation to fashion, but at a far slower rate than expected in psychological obsolescence. The slow pace suggests a stable status in culture: the dated appearance does not cause harm to the product or the company.

Adaptive obsolescence also refers to the anticipation of future industrial and production demands and safety issues. In practice, this means modifying the product before any possible penalties take place. Such was the case with Kimble’s wooden game pieces, which were changed to plastic in 1977. The CEO says that they could not say with any certainty whether the paint used in the pieces at that time was harmful. The plastic pieces were considered safer and allowed for the addition of a protruding edge on the outer surface to prevent the pieces from falling off the game board. The CEO has clarified that nowadays the wooden pieces are safer, and the retro versions of Kimble have reverted to wood. The development of Kimble also reflects the development of general processes of manufacture to ensure safer materials and methods.

According to the interviewees, the modifications have had a positive impact on the product and its manufacturing procedures. For instance, the hole was removed from the game package since customers complained about losing their game pieces. Both the former sales manager and the former production manager recall how the manufacturing of Kimble has developed: in early days, the game board was glued together which required a certain time to dry and a proper ventilation system. This made the process slow. Instead they developed a method of ultrasonic sealing where a small plastic plate is inserted under the game board and the parts are welded together. This is how Kimbles are still manufactured. In general, the adaptive obsolescence has occurred slowly and gradually, and has usually been the result of improvements. The modifications cannot be radical because a classic needs to secure its value when updated.

Jonathan Sterne has argued that obsolescence is not always planned but built-in or forced, and socially controlled (Sterne 2007, 22–23). The more advanced form of adaptive obsolescence would be forcing obsolescence. With an external force, such as legislation or the owner of the license, compels the manufacturer to make changes to the product, or a phenomenon such as fashion makes the product obsolete. This is close to social obsolescence, one of Brian Burns’ four modes of obsolescence, which he says is either something that societies stop doing, or something that occurs when new laws and standards are adopted (Burns 2010, 46–47). This shows that the product is not entirely under the manufacturer’s own influence.

The themed versions are ways to introduce the product to new generations via some known character or theme, such as the Disney Company’s Winnie the Pooh[5] (see Image 3) or Angry Birds based on a mobile game from the Finnish game company Rovio Entertainment (see Heljakka 2011). Some of the interviewees note the strict design instructions have to be followed when a license is bought. In some cases, the license is so expensive that the company can only use the visual design and is unable to design any new material components such as new game pieces. Each new themed version is chosen according to whatever is popular at the time. They have much shorter market lifespans than the original versions, mainly due to the rapid changes in fashion or closing contracts that force them to be obsolete.

Image 3. Winnie the Pooh Kimble. Lilli Sihvonen 2015.

The success of the themed versions can differ quite a lot. For instance, Winnie the Pooh Kimble is the first themed version ever published (2000), and the interviewees link it to a new era in Kimble’s history since it turned out to be a huge success where two classics were combined – a classic Disney character with a classic product (See Sihvonen & Sivula 2016). This themed version, with game pieces taking the shape of Winnie the Pooh, has lasted over time, and its visual design has been updated as the Disney Company has itself renewed its own characters. Another themed version is Beyblade Kimble (Image 4), with a design based on the anime series Beyblade, and the game pieces are the same shape and colour as the originals, but the players can put stickers on them. Beyblade Kimble was not as successful as Winnie the Pooh Kimble. The CEO explains that sometimes the target group and the product do not meet, and with the themed versions, there is always a risk involved since there is no guarantee of a successful version. However, themed versions enhance the life of the original version.

Image 4. Beyblade Kimble. Lilli Sihvonen 2015.

For the online inquiry respondents, the most recognised and owned version was the original Kimble. Moreover, when asked which was the best Kimble version and the reason for that choice, most of them chose the original version either because it was the only one they had ever played, they did not recognise other versions, or they thought the themed versions were too commercial. Some did not answer the question, while others claimed that they were unqualified to answer because they did not know other versions. For most, the time of acquisition of the original Kimble was unclear. They speculated that they had either bought it or receive it as a gift in their childhood in the 1990s, which also correlates with their age distribution. However, none of them described their version or gave any details about it. It is possible that due to the gradual and slow change of the current blue original version, the modifications were not visually memorable. The respondents did not know that Kimble had changed as only radical changes tend to be noted, or the modifications to Kimble were considered irrelevant. It is also possible that the question was not constructed sufficiently clearly for them to understand that they were being asked for a description of their version in order to determine the exact original version in question. The participants, of course, assumed I knew the game and that the game was generally known in Finland.

Interestingly, the themed versions were more often recognised than owned by the respondents compared to the original version [6]. There is a huge difference between recognising the versions mentioned in this article. For instance, only 9 respondents claimed to recognise Beyblade Kimble, while both Angry Birds Kimble[7]versions were more widely recognised, and the original Angry Birds version also owned by a few. Winnie the Pooh was recognised by 52 respondents and also owned by 12. This clearly confirms the CEO’s comment on the themed versions: the franchise has a huge impact on the success even though it is still the same product.

Consequently, the themed versions were not familiar to the respondents but this can also be because of the distribution channels of the online inquiry which correlates with the age distribution of the respondents: as I advertised the online inquiry, it first spread through the university and social media channels and only after that reached local media channels and board game groups. The online inquiry might not have reached the right target groups for the themed versions as the first was published in 2000, and the respondents who might have played those versions could have been just children at the time of the online inquiry. Should I release it again in 2025, it might reach the target groups of the themed versions and change the research results.

Regardless, the respondents resisted the commercialism and stated that the original version endures over time and is not prone to fashion. This was the case, even though the themed versions are physically just as durable as the original version. On the other hand, some respondents showed interest in the themed versions due to fandom and design. For instance, Pori Kimble (a version which is designed based on the Finnish city Pori and where Tactic Games’ headquarters is located) was claimed to be interesting. There were also a few who considered the first original Kimble (with a photograph) the best one. They mentioned the wooden pieces but not the hole on the cover, but this still indicates a mild interest towards the retro versions of Kimble. Miles Park claims that while fashion is a major reason for product obsolescence, it can have a positive impact on extending product lifespans. In fashion circulation, classics and collector’s items are created, and retro and nostalgia function as marketing strategies in recycling the past styles. Park also considers the advertising of ’design classics’ right at their launch problematic.(Park 2010, 95–96.) Classics cannot be artificially manufactured.

As themed versions extend the life of Kimble, they also indicate how prone Kimble can be to fashion but only when themed versions are in question. The online responses confirm the forms of adaptive and forced obsolescence: while the original version adapts to whatever cultural context there is, the themed versions live only a fragment of the life of the original version and they are forced not planned to become obsolete.


In the beginning of this article I asked how does a classic product change the purpose, outcome, and definition of planned obsolescence?

In the previous chapter, I presented a classic Finnish board game Kimble and its original and themed versions to elaborate new forms of planned obsolescence: adaptive and forced obsolescence, that is, voluntarily made modifications and ones that are forced by something external to the manufacturer. I have briefly described these new terms of obsolescence with an explanation and case examples in the following table. Undoubtedly, the line between different forms of obsolescence is subtle. For instance, although the creative manager was not certain why the materials in the original game pieces were changed, she said that these things can happen when a subcontractor closes down or another material becomes more common and cheaper. The manufacturer is either forced to modify the product or voluntarily chooses a new material.

Form of ObsolenceDescriptionCase Product Kimble
(FI: Sopeuttava)
Modifications and improvements that are voluntarily and gradually done. Caused by something external to the company.Gradual development and adaptability of original Kimble versions: slow change in visual design, anticipation of future industrial and production demands and safety issues.
(FI: Pakotettu)
An external force, such as legislation or owner of the license, compels manufacturers to make changes, or a phenomenon such as fashion makes the product obsolete. Manufacturer is focerd to make modifications.The introduction of themed versions: licenses are bought and last certain amount of time, they are chosen according to whatever is popular at the time.
Planned Obsolence
(FI: Suunniteltu vanhentaminen)
A method that limits the use of a product or a service technologically, materially, or psychologically (Sihvonen 2014). A sortment of techinques used to artifically limits the durability and to stimulate repetitive consumption (Slade 2006).Not applicable.

These new forms arise for two different reasons: Firstly, Kimble’s cultural neo-production process is only partial, and secondly, Kimble is physically durable. As explained earlier in this article, planned obsolescence is part of the cultural neo-production process in which classics are created, and its role in the process is to direct the product into a resting phase limiting the product availability. However, Kimble is not the type of product that rests: the original version is constantly available, and themed versions only exist for a while without ever reappearing apart from a few exceptions. The effect of planned obsolescence in Kimble’s cultural neo-production process is not complete; it is not planned. Rather, what occurs here are lighter versions of obsolescence but still obsolescence as the previous versions will no longer be available. I have illustrated this in the diagram below to demonstrate how the different forms might stand in relation to one another in the resting phase of the cultural neo-production process. Lighter versions of obsolescence are the consequence of a physically durable product being in the cultural neo-production process, and the reason for the partial process.

Figure 3. The relation of different forms of obsolescence in the cultural neo-production process. Lilli Sihvonen 2020.

According to Daniel Miller, an object’s own material possibilities and constraints may indicate some general material practices (Miller 1987, 105). The second reason, being physically durable, indicates a strong resistance to planned obsolescence. Although obsolescence is usually seen as the perishability of the material and the end of usefulness, in the cultural neo-production process the impact of obsolescence is not perpetual. The product in general does not become obsolete, but versions of it do, at least from a manufacturing point of view. Rob Lawlor’s distinction between item obsolescence and product obsolescence is useful here: in item obsolescence, a single individual item becomes obsolete while product obsolescence makes every single item of the product obsolete (Lawlor 2015, 401–426). Kimble versions might face product obsolescence, but the individually owned versions can continue for ever due to their durability. From a planned obsolescence point of view, the CEO claimed that Kimble’s only weakness is its durability: it is, in fact, too durable. Durability is, as argued by Tim Cooper, the required function of the product in its normal conditions of use (Cooper 2010, 8). Roland Strausz claims that it is often difficult to assess durability before purchase, but it is learnt in the use (Strausz 2009, 1405–1406). Kimble can be acknowledged as being more durable than required (See Sihvonen 2017), and its durability is one of the reasons for adaptive and forced obsolescence; it cannot be weakened on purpose because that would cause the loss of customers to the company.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has suggested that planned obsolescence is an encompassing term for different kinds of cultural conditions each of which need different methods of analysis and response (Fitzpatrick 2011, 1). Thus, its qualities are constantly being reconstructed and negotiated by different scholars. Every definition and perspective (when well argued) is reasonable and justifiable. It is difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to compress obsolescence into a one specific term. It is flexible term, and this flexibility is revealed by studying products that are not supposed to become obsolete and the cultural neo-production process in which classics are created. Classics do not exist without planned obsolescence; not only because it is part of the cultural neo-production process directing them to a resting phase, but also because other products around classics become obsolete. More importantly, it does not always lead to the wearing out and breaking of the product.

Of course, more research on the matter is needed. It will be necessary to investigate different types of classics and their cultural neo-production processes to determine the contexts where the different forms of obsolescence actually occur. Then, it would be possible to turn the cultural neo-production process into a tool to extend product life.


All links verified 11 October 2020.

Research material


Katriina Heljakka, creative manager, 23.1.2015. Recording and transcription in author’s possession.

Markku Heljakka, CEO, 5.2.2015. Recording and transcription in author’s possession.

Jussi Wallenius, graphic designer, 5.2.2015. Recording and transcription in author’s possession..

Kalevi Heljakka, (retired) sales manager, 11.9.2015. Recording and transcription in author’s possession.

Hannu Tuomola, (retired) production manager, 5.11.2015. Recording and transcription in author’s possession.

Kimble documentation

Kimble original versions 7. Material in author’s possession.

Kimble themed versions 21. Material in author’s possession.

Online inquiry

Kimble online inquiry, Webropol form, November 2015. Respondents 247 (women 184, men 51, other 6 and no reply 6). Material in author’s possession.

Online videos

”Domino – Klassikot eivät vanhene – Olohuone” . Youtube 17.8.2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAp6toARXwY. (transl. Domino – Classics do not age – The Living room scene” , Youtube)


Angry Birds. https://www.angrybirds.com/.

Beyblade. https://beyblade.com/.

”Domino – Suomen rakastetuin keksi”. Fazer. Viitattu 27.9.2019. https://www.fazer.fi/tuotteet-ja-asiakaspalvelu/tuotemerkit/domino/domino—suomen-rakastetuin-keksi/. (transl. Domino – Finland’s beloved cookie”, Fazer Company web page)

”Planned Obsolescence: Text, Theory, Technology”. Planned Obsolence. Viitattu 27.9.2019. https://plannedobsolescenceweb.wordpress.com/.

”Planned Obsolescence: Text, Theory, Technology – Program.” Planned Obsolence. Viitattu 27.9.2019. https://plannedobsolescenceweb.wordpress.com/program/.

Winnie the Pooh, Wikipedia site. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winnie-the-Pooh.

News Articles

Aulasmaa, Maarit. EU haluaa eroon kodinkoneiden ja elektroniikan kertakäyttökulttuurista – tilalle kestäviä, korjattavia ja kierrätettäviä laitteita.” Yle Uutiset 16.11.2016. https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-9289303. (transl. EU wants to get rid of disposable home electronics”, Yle News)

Kokkonen, Yrjö. EU pidentää sähkölaitteiden käyttöikää – korjauskelvottomia kodinkoneita ei enää päästetä myyntiin.” Yle Uutiset 11.1.2019. https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-10592132. (transl. EU is extending the use of electronic devices”, Yle News.)


Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value.” In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, 3–63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Burns, Brian. 2010. Re-evaluating Obsolescence and Planning for It.” In Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society, edited by Tim Cooper, 39–60. Farnham: Gower.

Chapman, Jonathan. 2015. Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy. London & New York: Routledge.

Connerton, Paul. 2008. Seven types of forgetting.” Memory Studies, 1(1): 59–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/1750698007083889.

Cooper, Tim. 2010. The Significance of Product Longevity.” In Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society, edited by Tim Cooper, 3–36. Farnham: Gower.

Davis, Fred. 1979. Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia. New York: The Free Press.

Eskola, Jari, and Juha Suoranta. 2014. Johdatus laadulliseen tutkimukseen. 10th edition. Tampere: Vastapaino.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2011. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York & London: New York University Press.

Grainge, Paul. 2000. Nostalgia and Style in Retro America: Moods, Modes, and Media Recycling.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, 23(1): 27–34. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1537-4726.2000.2301_27.x.

Heljakka, Katriina. 2010. Hiljaisen tiedon pelikentällä – Lautapelisuunnittelu vuorovaikutusprosessina.” Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja 2010, 22–32. http://www.pelitutkimus.fi/vuosikirja2010/ptvk2010-03.pdf.

Heljakka, Katriina. 2011. “License to thrill” – Lisenssit: lautapelisuunnittelun lyhyt oppimäärä.” Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja 2011, 46–54. http://www.pelitutkimus.fi/vuosikirja2011/ptvk2011-05.pdf.

Lawlor, Rob. 2015. Delaying Obsolescence.” Science and Engineering Ethics 21(2): 401-427. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-014-9548-6.

Maitre-Ekern, Eléonore, and Carl Dalhammar. 2016. Regulating Planned Obsolescence: A Review of Legal Approaches to Increase Product Durability and Reparability in Europe.” Reciel, 25( 3): 378–394. https://doi.org/10.1111/reel.12182.

Miller, Daniel. 1987. Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mäyrä, Frans. 2008. An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi & Singapore: Sage Publications.

Newman, James. 2012. Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence. London: Routledge.

Packard, Vance. 1960. The Waste Makers. New York: IG Publishing.

Park, Miles. 2010. Defying Obsolescence.” In Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society, edited by Tim Cooper, 77–105. Farnham: Gower.

Prior, Lindsay. 2014. Content analysis.” In The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Patricia Leavy, 359–379. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ryynänen, Toni, and Visa Heinonen. 2017. From nostalgia for the recent past and beyond: The temporal frames of recalled consumption experiences.” International Journal of Consumer Studies 2018, 42(1): 186–194. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijcs.12398.

Sihvonen, Lilli. 2014. Kulttuurituotteen suunniteltu vanhentaminen ja henkiinherättäminen – Esimerkkinä Disneyn Lumikki ja seitsemän kääpiötä. Pori: University of Turku.

Sihvonen, Lilli. 2017. Pop-o-matic-muovikupu ja kestävyys – Kimble-lautapelin pysyvien ominaisuuksien merkitys.” Ennen ja Nyt, Pelit ja historia, 2017(1), http://www.ennenjanyt.net/2017/01/pop-o-matic-muovikupu-ja-kestavyys-kimbe-lautapelin-pysyvien-ominaisuuksien-merkitys/.

Sihvonen, Lilli. 2018. From a Board Game to a Drinking Game: One Biography of the Finnish Board Game Kimble.” Well Played, 7(1): 127–142. http://press.etc.cmu.edu/index.php/product/well-played-vol-7-no-1/.

Sihvonen, Lilli. 2019. Heljakka, Aarne.” Online release from National Biography of Finland. Studia Biographica 4. Helsinki: The Finnish Literature Society (SKS), 1997–.

Sihvonen, Lilli, and Anna Sivula. 2016. Klassikoksi rakennettu – Erään lautapelin historia.” Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja 2016. http://www.pelitutkimus.fi/vuosikirja2016/klassikoksi-rakennettu-eraan-lautapelin-historia.

Slade, Giles. 2006. Made to break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press.

Sterne, Jonathan. 2007. Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media.” In Residual Media, edited by Charles R. Acland, 16–31. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Strausz, Roland. 2009. Planned Obsolescence as an Incentive Device for Unobservable Quality.” The Economic Journal, 119(540): 1405–1421. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40271396.

Tuomi, Jouni, and Anneli Sarajärvi. 2013. Laadullinen sisällönanalyysi. 11th edition. Helsinki: Tammi.

Vesterinen, Ilmari. 2001. Esinepeli.” In Pandoran lipas – Virvatulia esineiden maailmasta, Edited by Ilmari Vesterinen ja Bo Lönnqvist, 13–60. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

Wasko, Janet. 2001. Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy. Cambridge & Malden: Polity Press.

Woods, Stewart. 2012. Eurogames: The Design, Culture and Play of Modern European Board Games. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.


[1] Domino – Klassikot eivät vanhene”, Youtube.com 17.8.2017; Domino”, fazer.fi 27.9.2019. YouTube video on Domino cookies’ adds claiming that classics do not age or grow old. A Fazer Company’s website on Domino cookies telling the history of Domino cookies.

[2] Aulasmaa, yle.fi 16.11.2016; Kokkonen yle.fi 11.1.2019.

[3] Katriina Heljakka is also a researcher whose studies I refer to in my research.

[4] Read more about Kimble’s history from Sihvonen & Sivula 2016.

[5] Winnie the Pooh is originally A. A. Milne’s creation, which Disney Company later adopted. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winnie-the-Pooh.

[6] Only two respondents claimed neither to own nor to recognise even the original version, which indicates only a reluctance to answer thoroughly to the online inquiry: why would anyone answer to an online inquiry of Kimble, if they did not even recognise the game (apart from the possible lottery win)?

[7] Angry Birds original and Angry Birds Space Race.

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

Global Machines and Local Magazines in 1980s Greece: The Exemplary Case of the Pixel Magazine

do it yourself, Greece, home computers, magazines, press, programming, software

Theodore Lekkas
tlekkas [a] phs.uoa.gr
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Aristotle Tympas
tympas [a] phs.uoa.gr
Prof., PhD
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Lekkas, Theodore, and Aristotle Tympas. 2020. ”Global Machines and Local Magazines in 1980s Greece: The Exemplary Case of the Pixel Magazine”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/global-machines-and-local-magazines-in-1980s-greece-the-exemplary-case-of-the-pixel-magazine/

Printable PDF version

The article suggests that skillful and laborious work has been necessary to make the supposedly global (universal, general purpose) computer usable locally. This local use was greatly facilitated by the publication of computer magazines, which offered instructions to (as well as reviews and comparisons of) technological products, introduced interactive columns that addressed pressing user questions, and featured updates on and advertisements of hardware, software and peripherals. The article focuses on an exemplary Greek home computing magazine, Pixel, which was devoted to tinkering with computer programs and software more generally. It was the most influential in regards to home computing and ushered in the emergence and development of key user communities. Pixel had the largest circulation and went a long way in popularizing the home computer in Greece and in shaping its definition.


It is widely assumed that the digital computer is for our electronic era what the steam engine was for the late mechanical era and the AC generator was for the electrical era: the ‘global’, ‘universal’, ‘general-purpose’ machine par excellence. As such, it is supposed to be automatically usable in every context, without any work to adjust it to local use. It is supposed to be usable in every country after simply being ‘transferred’ to it, without any work to ‘domesticate’ it through extensive and skillful reconfiguration, especially from a software angle. We argue that this is not the case. Skillful and laborious work has been necessary to make the supposedly global computer usable locally. For example, in the Greek case, as we have already shown, one had to work substantially even to see Greek letters (fonts) in the screen or the print (Tympas, Tsaglioti, and Lekkas 2008; Dritsa, Mitropoulos, and Spinellis 2018). In this article, we elaborate further on the way personal computers – and, more specifically, home computers – were appropriated, localized and domesticated in Greece by focusing on the proliferation of Greek computing magazines in the 1980s. As our argument goes, computer magazines shaped the way home computers were introduced and used in Greece during this crucial decade.[1]

Home computers were introduced and became popular in Greece in the early 1980s, just like in the rest of the world. We know that three institutions/media ushered in this use: computer stores, user communities, and computer magazines (Lekkas 2017; Lekkas and Tympas 2019; Guerreiro-Wilson et al. 2004). In the Greek case, magazine articles were the dominant source of information for users (Lekkas 2017). They covered news, offered instructions to and comparative reviews of technological products, introduced interactive columns that addressed pressing user questions, and featured updates on and advertisements of hardware, software and peripherals.[2] Several of the early Greek publications focused on IBM-compatible office microcomputers, as well as home computers by various manufacturers. In the beginning, it was still unclear where and by whom microcomputers were to be used. Computers and their users were shaped in interaction throughout the fluid 1980s. This fluidity was carried over to the magazines devoted to computing technology.

In the present paper, we offer an introduction to the history of this fluidity by focusing on an exemplar home computing magazine, Pixel. We decided to single out Pixel for detailed presentation because, as we shall see, it was the most influential in regards to home computing: it had the largest circulation, it was focused on how to tinker with programming and software more generally, it ushered in the emergence and development of key user communities, and it went a long way in popularizing the home computer in Greece and in shaping its definition. We now know that software required skillful labor, the scarcity of which was responsible for a permanent ‘software crisis’ (Ensmenger 2003). Pixel emerged as a software-oriented publication that sought to address key dimensions of this crisis in Greece.

“When a demanding reader walked in”

The first computer magazines appeared in Greece in response to an increasing interest in the microcomputer, especially the home computer. They became popular due to their versatility in regards to the services they offered, their readability, and their low price (Lekkas 2017). International computer magazines were comparatively expensive. For example, the American magazine COMPUTE cost 750 drachmas in Greece in 1986 whereas the Greek MicroMad cost 180 drachmas. Moreover, the availability of international magazines was limited because their importing in Greece was irregular and in limited quantities. These factors made them practically inaccessible to many individual Greek users (MicroMad 1986, 136). Pixel was first published in October 1983, initially as a trimonthly insert to Computer for All, which had been first published only a few months earlier. The first issue covered October, November and December 1983. The second issue was already an independent publication, covering May and June 1984. Its cost was 150 Greek drachmas. It was subtitled the home-micro magazine. This subtitle is worth noticing, because it shows that it was the first Greek computer magazine to directly address users of home microcomputers.

In 1983, N. Manoussos, the general director of Compupress, publisher of Pixel and Computer for All (Computer για Όλους), two of the most popular Greek magazines in the field at the time, noted the rapidly expanding demand for free software for home computers in the form of program listings. It was this demand that pushed towards the publishing of magazines specialized in home computing (Retrovisions of 80s 2019). The program listings were basically commands that formed a microcomputer software program, which were printed as a list on a sheet of paper. The user could type these commands in the microcomputer and then run them to make the software work. The target audience of the listings was users who struggled to find affordable software to run. There were listings for recreational, educational and business uses of the computer.

As these listings could not fit in the pages of Computer for All, a separate publication was needed. According to Manoussos (1983, 3) Pixel was introduced after Computer for All readers expressed through their responses to a questionnaire a strong desire for much needed software, to be provided for free, in the form of program listings. Manoussos, who was personally in charge of both the “Letter from the Publisher” column in Pixel and the corresponding “Note from the Publisher” column in Computer for All, has explained that the publishing of Pixel represented “an attempt by Computer for All to cover the need of ready to use software for home/personal computers by offering listings you can type in your microcomputer to create a ‘library of software’ or to study and discover new programming techniques.” The need for program listings is captured in the following reminiscence by Manoussos (Retrovisions of 80s 2019):

Computer for All was probably the first Greek magazine to include such listings. Given, however, that there was a limit in the pages of the magazine, its listings were referring only to the most popular computers, like Sinclair, Commodore, etc. For the same reason, computing magazines could only rarely publish more than 2-3 programs per issue for the same machine. We were always under pressure by the readers to cover the home computer that they happened to have or to include more listings, for special games. We struggled to do so in the context of Computer for All. This is when a demanding reader walked in to ask us why we did not publish a special issue of the magazine that would be devoted to listings. We thought that this was a great idea and immediately started to plan to so as to have this special issue [the first issue of Pixel] by Christmas of 1983 (n.p).”

According to its editorial team, the publication of Pixel was founded on the acknowledgement of the dominance of software over hardware. This dominance was not clear during this early period in the Greek community of computer magazines, as the assumption was that advances in computer technology had mostly to do with hardware and its improvement, which made computers faster and more capable. Pixel’s pioneering sensitivity to the dynamics of the importance of software over hardware was rather novel in 1980s’ Greece.[3] For Manoussos (1983), software was the most difficult to obtain, a “ghost in the machine”. This expression echoes the perception of programming by its protagonists as being a “black art” (Ensmenger 2012) by “the high priests of a low cult.” (quoted in Computer 1980) It has been illustrated vividly on the cover of Time, April 1984, on which Bill Gates was showing off his skills under the headline: “Computer Software. The magic inside the machine” (Time 1984, April 16, 1). For Manoussos (Retrovisions of 80s 2019), at the time, “the thirst of home users for software was endless”. In his view, this explains the publishing of listings in the pages of home computing magazines. “The capability and the availability to write a few commands in BASIC (and, at times, in machine language), to run a program that supported some little application or a game,” he remembers, “was a defining feature of the so-called ‘heroic age of computing’.”

Manoussos further recalls that, back then, a new “home PC” (his expression) was introduced almost every month, which was frequently incompatible with the rest. This made the sharing of software between users of different machines rather impossible and resulted in increasing tension between users and providers of software for home computers. To be sure, in the international case, home computers were personal computers, but the term “personal computer” in the 1980s was used for the IBM PC and IBM-compatible PCs (Sumner and Gooday 2008; Sumner 2012). In the Greek case, however, the term “home PC’ was introduced so as to bridge the gap between home computers and PCs, by assuming that the most powerful home computers could also function as PCs. This was to happen by using home computers to run more PC-related (e.g. office-type) applications.[4] Listings to run such applications were, in the first years, also offered through Pixel, which helped to reduce the aforementioned tension.

Users of program listings were Greeks who wished to utilize their home computers but could not afford to purchase commercial software or wished to learn how to program them. Programming was understood as one of the essential aspects of the use of home computing. Pixel immediately became a vehicle for the dissemination of software in the form of program listings. From the first issue, the section of the magazine that included the program listings was entitled “Software” (Pixel 1984a; Pixel 1984b; Pixel 1984d; Pixel 1984e). Pixel was the first magazine on personal computers in Greece to dedicate a large part of its content to the publication of program listings. Indicatively, program listings occupied almost one-third of the total pages of the second issue. It was clear from the beginning that Pixel’s publication was response to the demand for new software by a growing number of amateur home computer users. According to the editorial team (Lekopoulos 1988a, 136):

“The aim of the magazine is to cover the lack of information available to the public on computers. The wider public does not really know what a computer is. Some have a hazy image in their minds, an image promoted by the general press. Even those who do have a better image, do not adequately understand how microcomputers will affect society. Pixel aims to cover the field of home computers (Oric, Spectrum, etc), closely observing the rapidly evolving market of microcomputers and occasionally intervening to shape it.”

Writing in Greek, i.e. using Greek fonts, frequently depended on the offering of program listings. Suggestively, the Greek importer of the Spectravideo home computer relied on Pixel for the dissemination of a program listing that allowed Greek users to have Greek fonts in this computer. This program was written in machine language by ELEAN Ltd, the official Greek importer of Spectravideo home computers. It was published in the third issue of Pixel (Pixel 1984b, 112).

The publication of listings established a strong interaction between Pixel and its readers. Many of them negotiated with the magazine the publication of their own software in the form of listings. Readers felt honored to have their software published and circulated through the pages of Pixel. Also, the publication of software through Pixel offered to its readers the opportunity to spot and report errors and to suggest possible corrections to published listings. As we learn from letters by readers, some of the program listings, which were copied from British and other international computer magazines, contained errors.[5] To many of Greek users, Pixel offered a forum to showcase their skills and programming expertise, to position themselves within the new socio-technical environment formed around the introduction and use of computers in the Greek society (Lekkas 2014b).

The foundation of Pixel was connected to the issue regarding the appropriate identity of a computer user. For its editorial team, a user had to be skilled in programming. In the absence of formalized education in computing, this user-programmer was to be trained through the magazine by participating in the collective production and use of program listings, and, further, by reading a series of special training articles and guides to programming languages of home microcomputers. These were, mainly, the versions of BASIC included in the package obtained during the purchase of a microcomputer. The emphasis on the importance of magazine-mediated training in programming declined by the end of the 1980s but never disappeared (Lekkas 2017). In the third issue, the editors communicated the magazine as “the ultimate expression of the dynamic field of home computers” (Zorzos 1984). It included a series of new columns, some of which went on for several years and gained substantial popularity. This was the case with the column Interferences (Επεμβάσεις), the first column in a Greek computer magazine to focus on modifications of microcomputer software, especially games (Tsouanas 1984, 16).

New columns on programming were also launched. Parallel Roads (Παράλληλοι Δρόμοι), offered a translation of a piece of software to all BASIC versions. This guaranteed compatibility between versions just as it offered an opportunity for practicing translation between versions, thereby making BASIC as a whole accessible to all users (Pixel 1984e, 36). In addition, this column sought to solve a problem that plagued the proper running of a home computer by its users. It had to do with the fact that a program for one home computer could not run to another even though in both cases the language used was BASIC. Variations in the BASIC dialects, as combined with differences between home computers, made incompatibility a great issue (Retrovisions of 80s 2019).

Through information offered by the Pixel column Parallel Roads, a reader could use the same program in several computers and, at the same time, “identify the changes in the commands of the various dialects so as to understand how to produce the compatibility that he needed.” (Pixel 1984d, 36). The proper use of the computer did not have to do with the simple keyboarding of commands but reached into changing these commands through programming. As for familiarity with BASIC, the magazine assumed that it was indispensable for the “first steps in the use of a home computer”. “We certainly know, all of us, how to write at least one program in BASIC, the most common language of home micros,” we read in a 1985 article in Pixel (Pixel 1985, 28).

“A rather risky endeavor”

The publisher of Pixel, Compupress Ltd, was founded in 1982, a year before the publication of Computer for All in January of 1983. In the 1980s, Compupress undertook several important initiatives in the field of publications of relevance to computing and related technologies and it was one of the first companies in Greece to publish specialty material on them. As explained through its website, “Compupress was founded in 1982 with the initial goal of publishing magazines and books in the field of Informatics and the then emergent ‘New Technology’” (Compupress 2019a). Compupress also published books and software for computers and home computers.[6] Computing technology magazines of the early 1980s were published by new and small publishing houses, or even computer stores, which also published books or produced software. Compupress is a good example of a new and relatively small publishing house of this period.

In the early 1980s, home computing was certainly not a topic dealt with by large publishing houses and computing professionals. It was mostly picked up by amateurs who saw in the field of microcomputer technology a potential for themselves (Lekkas 2014a). RAM, the first computer magazine by an established publishing house, the Lambrakis Press Group, did not appear before the late 1980s (February 1988). By contrast, as already mentioned, Compupress, the new and small publishing house that published Computer for All and Pixel, was launched six years earlier. To indicate the lasting contribution by amateurs, we can refer to a report by the first editor-in-chief of the computer magazine User, Giorgos Kouseras. User was launched in February of 1990 through the efforts of a few amateurs, from a small space in central Athens. Following in a tradition established in the 1980s, the magazine employed only a handful of employees, usually no more than two or three. They authored columns under pseudonyms so as to make it look as if the magazine employed more staff. According to Kouseras, this helped them to project an image of reliability and representativeness (Retromaniax 2019).

For Kouseras (Retromaniax 2019), the publication of computer magazines without the backing of an established publisher was “a rather risky endeavor”, with unpredictable financial repercussions. It was an endeavor for a “hobbyist, friendly, spontaneous and romantic era”. The publication of the first issues of User was always difficult, with the amateurs behind it being constantly on the verge of a financial disaster. This difficulty was shared by almost all early editors of computing magazines. According to Kouseras (Retromaniax 2019), publishing the first two years of the publication of User was especially hard. Each User issue was potentially the last one, as the magazine was struggling under financial burdens. Similarly, Manoussos recalls that the sales of the first issue, which appeared in Christmas of 1983, was “well below their expectations, especially considering the intensity of work required to prepare it.” This is why “the impression around Compupress was that the Pixel experiment was to die shortly” (Retrovisions of 80s 2019). It was proved that it did not.

The reliance on amateurs resulted in the establishment of relationships defined by friendship and comradeship within the members of the small group that published a computing magazine, as well as between this group and the readers of the magazine. It is within this context that photographs of the Pixel editors having fun at a tavern were published in the magazine on the occasion of the celebration of the five years of Compupress (Pixel 1988a, 12). The members of the editorial teams were usually very young. In an article published upon the completion of one year of publication of Computer for All, the editor wrote: “we have a very low average age. There are no ‘rigid structures’ in our company. We share a sense of friendship and a common passion to make each issue better than the previous one.” (Computer for All 1984, 10).

Following in the style of the cover chosen for the first issue (1983) of Pixel (Figure 1), all of the magazine covers were a faithful reproduction of the style of the cover of TIME magazine. TIME had actually dedicated its January 1982 issue to the importance of the computer games industry, introduced under the title Video Games Are Blitzing the World. Despite its beginning as an insert, Pixel magazine was so successful that it inspired its own child publications: the annual Super-Pixel (an annual guide), Pixel Junior, which focused on listings on home microcomputers once Pixel started to cover additional themes, and Pixelmania, which was devoted to gaming. Compupress also published the magazines Information and Compu Data, which were tailored to the more professional aspects of computer use. From January 1987, it added the publication of the GCS Newsletter, a publication of the Greek Computer Society (nowadays Ελληνική Εταιρεία Επιστημόνων και Επαγγελματιών Πληροφορικής και Επικοινωνιών – ΕΠΥ) (Pixel 1987a, 69).

Figure 1. The covers of the first issue of Pixel (1983) and of the 119th (1982) issue of Time (Pixel 1983, October – November – December, 1; Time 1982, January 18, 1).
Figure 1. The covers of the first issue of Pixel (1983) and of the 119th (1982) issue of Time (Pixel 1983, October – November – December, 1; Time 1982, January 18, 1).

The magazine regularly featured reviews of the Greek computer market, presenting the main computer stores and, later, the first software houses. Also, Pixel often featured interviews with business pioneers from these fields. It was one of the first Greek magazines to carry out comparative tests. They were published in Pixel throughout the 1980s.[7] One of the most successful initiatives was the creation of the Pixel Club in 1984. This club went a long way in solidifying the bond between the magazine and its readers. The creation of computer clubs ushered greatly in the creation of mediation nodes for the home microcomputer use during the 1980s (Lekkas and Tympas 2019).

Editors systematically sought information from abroad, especially when their own field of expertise was not yet developed in Greece. Information could be acquired through correspondence with international colleagues or Greek students who were paid to copy technical information from the international press. In 1985, a column entitled London calling (Εδώ Λονδίνο) was launched by the editor Vasilis Konstantinou. It aimed at bringing news to Greek users from the “metropolis of home computers”, as London was referred to due to being home to many home computer companies, including Sinclair, Amstrad, Acorn and others (Figure 2) (Lekopoulos 1988b, 35). Referring to London as a “metropolis” of home computing shows how close the Greek users were to the British computing scene. This was due to two reasons: First, the large community of Greeks who studied at British universities and naturally served as a bridge between this scene and Greek home computer users, and second, the importing of many British home computers to Greece (Lekkas, 2014a).

Clive Sinclair
Figure 2. Clive Sinclair, the legendary owner of Sinclair Research, featured in Pixel with Computer for All in his hands. The photo was taken by a Pixel correspondent in the UK (Konstantinou 1987, 121.)

The column regularly informed Greek users about international shows and trade fairs, like the annual Personal Computers World Shows, which offered an opportunity for the most important manufacturers to exhibit their products (Konstantinou 1987). Konstantinou was one of the few editors of the magazine to have studied computer science. He actually did so in London, where he lived permanently. His reports to the column were transmitted electronically, probably a first in the Greek publishing world. The editor sent them through a FIDO bulletin board, a modem, which required a manual connection with a corresponding modem in the magazine, over a telephone line connecting Greece and the UK (Pixel 1987b, 17).

Also in 1985, Compupress had established an agreement with British publications in the field of computers and informatics for exclusive reprinting in its own publications (mainly Computer for All) of articles from the magazines Personal Computer World, Computing, Informatics and Datalink (Computer for All 1985, 94).

Pixel went through a similar revamping, starting with the November 1997 issue (134), published under the title Pixel NG (Next Generation). This was a magazine exclusively about gaming consoles. Pixel NG went out of circulation on October 1998, after 14 issues. The transformation of Pixel was in touch with similar transformations at the international level. In April 1988, the magazine’s editor introduced the changes in focus and content by stating: “Dear readers, as you have already noticed, going through the pages, the issue that you hold in your hands represents a very different image, which aims to help Pixel converge with the leading European magazines on informatics (Kyriakos 1988, 13).

Members of the Pixel community also contributed to the popularized of home computing through TV shows. In 1991, Compupress agreed with the Greek state television to produce three television series: One on personal computing (‘COMPUTERS: ΤΑ ΕΡΓΑΛΕΙΑ ΤΟΥ 2000’), one on gaming (‘THE COMPUTER SHOW’), and one on soccer game predictions and gambling. The Computer Show on ERT1, the main channel of the Greek state television, was hosted by Antonis Lekopoulos and Giorgos Kyparissis, both editors of Pixel (Compupress 2019b). Interestingly, Pixel organized concerts in stadiums, which included lotteries and entertainment activities. Through everything said so far, Pixel became the model for other Greek magazines in the field, which sought to copy its practices. For example, Market Guide, a special multiple pages column in Pixel that started with the March 1985 issue (8), was copied by other magazines, like Electronics and Computer (Ηλεκτρονική και Computer) (Ηλεκτρονική και Computer 1985) and RAM (RAM 1990).

The circulation of Pixel remained high during the entire 1980s. This seems even more impressive if we take into account that for many years the magazine only addressed users of home microcomputers and not of IBM compatibles, which represented a community much more prominent in other Western European countries. Pixel quickly obtained a readership in the order of tens of thousands and maintained it for years. According to data available from the Central Agency of Daily and Periodical Press S.A., the circulation of the 35th issue (July – August 1987) was about 25,000. This number did not include copies sold through subscriptions. According to the picture offered by Pixel itself, its average circulation for the period July 1986 to September 1987 was about 21,000 (Lekopoulos 1988a, 136). This accounted for 77.67% of the total sales of home microcomputer magazines – the main antagonists being MicroMad and EPTA (ΕΠΤΑ) (Lekopoulos 1988a, 137). At its peak, in 1987, the circulation of Pixel reached almost 30,000. This was higher than that of Computer for All, which had an average monthly circulation of 10,000-12,000 issues by targeting business users (Retrovisions of 80s 2019). In the early 1990s, according to the estimation of Kouseras, the Pixel circulation was about 20,000. Based on these numbers, we suggest that Pixel was the most successful Greek computing magazine of this era. Its circulation would only be matched by the computing magazine RAM during the next decade (Lekkas 2017).

“Hurray for Games!”

The focus on programming, as well as the publication of program listings, defined the run of Pixel throughout the 1980s. Its contents, however, gradually underwent noticeable transformation. Central to this transformation was the use of computers for entertainment, most notably for playing games. While programming itself was for some still a form of entertainment, there were many who thought of it as an unavoidable step to what was the real computing fun: games. By the mid-1980s, this step could actually be avoided because commercial computer games became available. This brought about a noticeable change, as knowledge of (and experience with tinkering with) the computer was no longer a key part of the culture of computing (Lekkas 2013; Lekkas 2014; Lekkas 2017).

A computer user could now be part of this culture by playing games on the computer without knowing anything else about it. The emphasis was shifting from programming the computer to using ready-made commercial programs for computer games. Playing games frequently meant competing against others, trying to get the highest score. Updates on the performance (scoring) in a whole range of games were regularly offered through computing magazines. Several of them, including Pixel Junior, ΖΖΑΠ!, SPRITE, GamePro, Computer Games and User, were almost exclusively covering the latest in computer games.

By 1987, Pixel begun to report important changes both in the technical characteristic and the aspects of use of home computers. These were due to the gradual dominance of affordable IBM compatibles,[8] but also the emergence of 16bit home microcomputers, which were superior when it came to audio and graphics. As such, it facilitated the creation and publication of impressive entertainment software. This oriented many to entertainment-related uses of the home computers. The emergence of Atari ST, Amiga 500 and other 16bit home computers marked an important turn for the Pixel content.[9] In comparison to the 8bit machines of the first half of the 1980s, they allowed for the production of “super graphics”, according to Pixel’s terminology. These super graphics impressed both the magazine’s editors and the users of home computers (Kyriakos 1987a, 9).

In September 1987, Pixel launched the first column dedicated exclusively to adventure games (Tsourinakis 1988, 30-34). Contrary to most other computer games, this category required more than fast reflexes and coordination from the user to implement an elaborate script. The genre was very popular among users of personal computers (Moss 2011). Entertainment software, and especially games with graphics, quickly gained in popularity. After 1988 they represented the dominant aspect of the use of home computers. It is suggestive that Super Pixel, the annual edition of Pixel, was published in 1988 under the title 1988: Hurray for Games! (1988: Ζήτω τα Games!) (Pixel 1988b, 161). In September 1989 (issue 58), Pixel changed its subtitle to Monthly Magazine on Home Micros and Computer Games. In the same year, the service Pixel Software Boutique was also introduced. It aimed at selling by mail computer game software for almost all kinds of home computers. The Pixel readers only had to select their preferred software and fill in the form provided (Figure 3) (Pixel 1989a, 77).

pixel magazine
Figure 3. In 1989, the readers of Pixel could order original software for their home computers by filling in the relevant form (Pixel 1989a, 77).

Starting with the 6th issue (1985), the pages dedicated to program listings had decreased, from one third to about 20% of the available space, while still remaining a substantial part of the magazine.[10] This reduction reflected the gradual availability of ready-made commercial software for home computers. Yet, innovative columns all but disappeared. The editors continue to value highly the use of home computers as a learning and programming tool. The constantly renewed the way they presented program listings so that “both expert and novice programmers can learn through them a few new techniques.” (Kyriakos 1987b, 10)

The unavailability of statistics on the use of 16bit home microcomputers for games makes it impossible to offer a safe estimate on the range of this use. However, the constant references to home microcomputers as ‘game machines’ (παιχνιδομηχανές) makes it clear that the use of home microcomputers for games was the dominant one, overshadowing the other types of uses. We should here take into account that home microcomputers of the second generation did not compare favorably to IBM-compatibles when it came to uses beyond gaming. Microcomputers were better only for electronic editing, and the use of graphics and sound.


Based on the research presented in this article, we can argue that the role of Pixel was catalytic in shaping the way users of home computers came to contact with and used this technology. Being relatively unknown to the vast majority of Greeks, and also being under constant reconfiguration, this technology was advanced only by satisfying the demand, apparent as early as in 1982, for media to connect it to users, to make it familiar to them, to instruct them how to do the necessary tinkering with this technology in order to adjust it to their own local needs. Computing magazines became this media, with Pixel being, as all evidence suggests, the most representative example. Home computing magazines, just like home computing itself, became mainstream, gradually, by the late 1980s, parallel to the emergence of entertainment uses as the dominant ones.

As we saw in the first section of this article, up to then, however, the role of Pixel in the diffusion of home computers in Greece had to do with three things: First, the shaping of a culture of use of home computers, connected to specific uses of this technology, like the programming and the production, entering and editing of program listings; second, the formation of groups around these uses, especially the one concerning the dissemination of computer software; and finally, third, the habituation of users to tinkering with home microcomputers as a way to adjust them to their preferred use. Pixel helped to promote all this through alternative channels, including TV and radio programs.

In the second section of this article, we argued that the publication of Pixel magazine reflected the need of an emerging community of users, who looked for ways to express their creativity and to pursuit a career in the new field of home computers. Given that this field was uncharted, this involved considerable risk and financial uncertainty. This kept the traditional actors in the business of publishing at a distance. The so-called “microcomputer revolution”, which is considered an important case of a “technological revolution”, fell, initially, to an important extent, upon the shoulders of amateur publishers (Retrovisions of 80s 2019).

In the third and final section we saw that the wider use of home computing technology came along the prevalence of their mainstream use, which had to do with the consumption of ready-made commercial software. We also saw that after 1987, on the grounds of the incorporation of devices for the reproduction of advanced graphics and sound, the 16bit version of home computers emerged as especially appropriate for the use of recreational software. The gradual emphasis on the recreational use, which challenged the view that tinkering with home computing was by itself pleasurable, lead to the ending of the publication of Pixel by the mid-1990s.


All links verified 16.6.2020

Research Material

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‘Advertisement [Διαφήμιση].’ 1987c. Pixel, December, 182.

‘Advertisement [Διαφήμιση].’ 1988b. Pixel, April.

‘Advertisement [Διαφήμιση].’ 1988c. Pixel, June. 149.

‘Advertisement [Διαφήμιση].’ 1989b. Pixel, October.

‘Correspondence [Αλληλογραφία].” 1985b, Pixel, January.

‘Current Affairs [Στην Επικαιρότητα.]” 1990. RAM, February.

‘Events… Rumours… Comments… [Γεγονότα… Φήμες… Σχόλια…].’ 1987b. Pixel, November.

‘Events… Rumours… Comments…, 5 Years Compupress!!!! [Γεγονότα… Φήμες… Σχόλια…, 5 Years Compupress!!!!].’ 1988a. Pixel, March.

‘First Steps [Πρώτα Βήματα].’ 1985. Pixel, February.

‘Market Guide [Οδηγός Αγοράς].’ 1985. Ηλεκτρονική και Computer, December-January.

‘Parallel Roads [Παράλληλοι Δρόμοι]’. 1984c. Pixel, July-August.

‘Pixel Software Boutique.’ 1989a. Pixel, January.

‘Retail Prices Boards [Πίνακες Τιμών Λιανικής].’ 1990. RAM, February.

‘Software.’ 1984a. Pixel, May-June.

‘Software.’ 1984b. Pixel, July-August.

‘Software.’ 1984d. Pixel, September-October.

‘Software.’ 1984e. Pixel, November-December.

‘The Open Channel.’ 1980. Computer, March. https://doi.org/10.1109/MC.1980.1653540.

‘YOU & US [ΕΣΕΙΣ & ΕΜΕΙΣ].’ 1986. MicroMad, February.


Compupress, ‘Company History [Ιστορικό Εταιρείας].’ Accessed September 7, 2019, http://www.compupress.gr/istoriko_gr.asp.

Compupress. ‘The Company. General information. [H Εταιρία. Γενικές Πληροφορίες]’ Accessed September 7, 2019, http://www.compupress.gr/taftotita_gr.asp.

Retromaniax. ‘Η ιστορία των πρώτων USER [The history of the first USER]’. Accessed September 7, 2019. https://retromaniax.gr/threads/%CE%97-%CE%B9%CF%83%CF%84%CE%BF%CF%81%CE%AF%CE%B1-%CF%84%CF%89%CE%BD-%CF%80%CF%81%CF%8E%CF%84%CF%89%CE%BD-user.3158/.

Retrovisions of 80s. ‘Ο Νικόλαος Μανούσος της Compupress στο retrovisions.gr.’ Accessed September 7, 2019. http://www.retrovisions.gr/joomla/index.php/reviews/2014-08-16-09-56-57/25-ceo-compupress-retrovisions-gr.


Brittain, James E. 1997. ‘The Evolution of Electrical and Electronics Engineering and the Proceedings of the IRE: 1938-1962.’ Proceedings of the IEEE 85 (5): 762–797.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 2003. From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 2007. ‘The History of the History of Software.’ IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 29 (4): 40–51.

Carver, Scott J. 1977. ‘”Tekhnologicheskii zhurnal”: An Early Russian Technoeconomic Periodical.’ Technology and Culture 18 (4): 622–643. https://doi.org/10.2307/3103589.

Ceruzzi, Paul E. 2003. A History of Modern Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Computer for All. 1984. January.

Corn, Joseph. 1992. ‘Educating the Enthusiast: Print and the Popularization of Technical Knowledge.’ in Possible Dreams: Enthusiasm for Technology in America, edited by John L. Wright, 19–33. Dearbon, Michigan: Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

Dooley, Brendan Maurice. 1991. Science, Politics, and Society In Eighteenth-Century Italy: The Giornale de Letterati d’Italia and its World. New York: Garland.

Dritsa, Konstantina, Dimitris Mitropoulos, and Diomidis Spinellis. 2018. ‘Aspects of the History of Computing in Modern Greece.’ IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 40 (1): 47–60. https://doi.org/10.1109/MAHC.2018.012171267.

Ducklow, Hugh. 1973. ‘Science, Politics, and the ‘New Statesman’, 1930-1940.’ Synthesis: The Harvard University Journal in the History and Philosophy of Science, 1 (1): 27–30.

Ensmenger, Nathan. 2003. ‘Letting the ‘Computer Boys’ Take Over: Technology and the Politics of Organizational Transformation.’ International Review of Social History 48 (S11): 153–180. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020859003001305

Ensmenger, Nathan. 2012. The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ferguson, Eugene. 1989. ‘Technical Journals and the History of Technology.’ In In Context: History and the History of Technology – Essays in Honor of Melvin Kranzberg, edited by Stephen H. Cutcliffe, 53–70. Pennsylvania: Lehigh University Press.

Gascoigne, Robert Mortimer. 1985. A Historical Catalogue of Scientific Oeriodicals, 1665–1900: With a Survey of Their Development. New York: Garland.

Gooday, Graeme, and James Sumner. 2008. ‘By Whose Standards? Standardization, Stability and Uniformity in the History of Information and Electrical Technologies.’ The British Journal for the History of Science 43 (3): 503–505. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007087410001196.

Guerreiro-Wilson, Robbie, Lars Heide, Matthias Kipping, Cecilia Pahlberg, Adrienne van den Bogaard, and Aristotle Tympas. 2004. ‘Information Systems and Technology in Organizations and Society: Review Essay.’ ‘Tensions of Europe’ Working Paper.

Hempstead, Colin A. 1995. ‘Representations of Transatlantic Telegraphy.’ Engineering Science & Education Journal 4 (6): 17–25. https://doi.org/10.1049/esej:19950616.

Hopwood, Nick. 1996. ‘Producing a Socialist Popular Science in the Weimar Republic.’ History Workshop Journal 41 (1): 117–153.

Houghton, Bernard. 1975. Scientific Periodicals : Their Historical Development, Characteristics, and Control. London: Bingley.

Kirkpatrick, Graeme. 2015. The Formation of Computer Gaming Culture. UK Gaming Magazines, 1981–1995. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Konstantinou, Vassilis. 1987. ‘PCW SHOW 1987.’ Pixel, November.

Kronick, David Abraham. 1976. A History of Scientific & Technical Periodicals: The Origins and Development of the Scientific and Technical Press, 1665-1790. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press.

Kyriakos, Christos. 1987a. ‘Pixel’s news [Τα Νέα του Pixel].’ Pixel, March.

Kyriakos, Christos. 1987b. ‘Pixel’s news [Τα Νέα του Pixel].’ Pixel, September.

Kyriakos, Christos. 1988. ‘Pixel’s news [Τα Νέα του Pixel].’ Pixel, July-August.

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Lekkas, Theodore, and Aristotle Tympas. 2019. ‘”A club for all the Greeks”: Home Micro Computer Clubs between Magazines and Stores.’ Geschichte und Informatik / Histoire et Informatique 20: 103–125.

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Lekkas, Theodore. 2014a. ‘Public Image and User Communities of the Home Computers in Greece, 1980–1990.’ PhD diss., National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Lekkas, Theodore. 2014b. ‘Legal Pirates Ltd: Home Computing Cultures in Early 1980s Greece.’ In Hacking Europe: From Computer Cultures to Demoscenes, edited by Gerard Alberts and Ruth Oldenziel, 73–103. New York: Springer.

Lekkas, Theodore. 2017. ‘Computer Technology Periodicals and the Circulation of Knowledge about the Personal Computer in 1980s Greece’. History of Technology 33 (1): 229–251. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474237260.0014.

Lekopoulos, Antonis, 1988a. ‘Pixel and HOME MICROS: Past, Present and Future [Pixel και HOME MICROS: Παρελθόν, Παρόν και Μέλλον].’ Pixel, February.

Lekopoulos, Antonis. 1988b. ‘Pixel Celebrates 50 issues [To Pixel γιορτάζει 50 τεύχη].’ Pixel, December.

Manoussos, Nikolaos. 1983. ‘A Letter from the Publisher [Γράμμα από τον Εκδότη].’ Pixel, November – December.

Moss, Richard. 2011. ‘A Truly Graphic Adventure: The 25-year Rise and Fall of a Beloved Genre.” Ars Technica, January 27, http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2011/01/history-of-graphic-adventures/.

Strange, P. 1985. ‘Two Electrical Periodicals: The Electrician and The Electrical Review 1880-1890’. IEE Proceedings A (Physical Science, Measurement and Instrumentation, Management and Education, Reviews) 132 (8): 574–581. https://doi.org/10.1049/ip-a-1:19850098.

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Tsouanas, Nikos. 1984. ‘Break the Manic Miner’. Pixel, July – August.

Tsourinakis, Andreas, 1988. ‘Adventure [Περιπέτεια].’ Pixel, January.

Tsouroplis, Dimitris 1984. ‘Comparative Test. ORIC vs SPECTRUM [Συγκριτικό Τεστ. Oric εναντίον Spectrum].’ Pixel, May – June.

Tympas, Aristotle, Fotini Tsaglioti, and Theodore Lekkas. 2008. ‘Universal Machines vs. National Languages: Computerization as Production of New Localities.” In Proceedings of Technologies of Globalization, edited by R. Anderl, B. Arich-Gerz, and R. Schmiede, 223–234. Darmstadt: TU Darmstadt.

Tympas, Aristotle. 2003. ‘One Global Machine, Many Local Journals: The Proliferation of a Nation-specific Press in Electronic Computing in the Case of Greece.’ Paper presented at the Annual meeting for the Society for the History of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, 16–19 October.

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Zorzos, Grigoris. 1984. ‘Pixel’s news [Τα Νέα του Pixel].’ Pixel, July – August.


[1] Ferguson (1989) shows the importance of studying technology-related periodical publications. Strange (1985) offers a similar account for histories of journals. Brittain (1997) showcases the co-evolution of a journal and a technical discipline. Ducklow (1973), Carver (1977), Dooley (1991) and Hopwood (1996) offer a geographically, chronologically, and thematically disperse sample on the history of technical and scientific journals and periodicals or general journals and periodicals that were involved in science or technology issues. More specifically, Hopwood focuses on the magazine Urania, which had a circulation of approximately 25,000 copies between 1924 and 1933, when it was closed down by the Nazis. Houghton (1975), Kronick (1976) and Gasgoine (1985) have published more general accounts of the field. Lancashire (1988), Hempstead (1995) and Corn (1992) have studied periodicals like the ones discussed in this paper.

[2] Our interest in the history of the role of computer magazines goes back to the early 2000s (Tympas 2003).

[3] Lekkas (2014a) shows examples of the importance of software over hardware in 1980s Greece. Ceruzzi (2003), Campbell-Kelly (2003), Campbell-Kelly (2007) and Ensmenger (2012) have given us pioneering studies on the histories of software, which argue about the importance of software more generally.

[4] An indicative example is the listing of a logistics program (“Πρόγραμμα Αποθήκης”) for the Spectravideo home computer published in Pixel (1984, 109).

[5] In this example, the source of the copied listing was the Your Computer British computer magazine (Pixel 1985b, 117).

[6] For a sample of books, see Srully Blotnick, «To «χρυσό» βιβλίο των υπολογιστών σε μετάφραση» (“The golden” book of computers in translation”); Sp. Kalomitsini – Th. Papadimitriou, «Κομπιούτερς, απλά μαθήματα για όλους» (“Computer, simple lessons for everyone”); «AMSTRAD. Χίλιες και μια δυνατότητες» (“AMSTRAD. Thousands and one possibilities”), «ASSEMBLY ΓΙΑ ΤΟΥΣ ELECTRON & BBC» (“ASSEMBLY FOR ELECTRON & BBC”); all advertised in Pixel (1988c, 149). For samples of updates on software, see the following advertisements: the software ΠΡΟ-ΠΟ ‘HITPACK 13’ for the Amstrad 664/6128 in Pixel (1987c, 182); «H Γλώσσα Μηχανής του SPECTRUM» (“SPECTRUM machine language”) and «GRAPHICS ΚΑΙ ΚΙΝΗΣΗ ΣΤΟΝ SPECTRUM» (“Graphics and movement in SPECTRUM”) in Pixel (1988c, 149); Advertisement for the publication «WHO is WHO Πληροφορική» (“WHO is WHO Informatics”), in Pixel (1989b, 55).

[7] The first such test was published in the second issue of Pixel and compared the Spectrum and Oric home microcomputers (Tsouroplis 1984, 20–26).

[8] According to a research by Dataquest, in 1988 the number of PCs sold in Greece was 27,000 (RAM 1990, 20).

[9] Kirkpatrick (2015) offers a reflection of a culture of diverse practices in the early issues of UK gaming magazines.

[10] Pages 86-114 from a total of 124 pages of Pixel, issue 6 (1985).

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

The Polish Amiga Scene as a Brand Community

Amiga, brand community, Commodore, consumption, demoscene, home computer, piracy, Poland

Patryk Wasiak
patrykwasiak [a] gmail.com
Institute of History
Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Wasiak, Patryk. 2020. ”The Polish Amiga Scene as a Brand Community”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/the-polish-amiga-scene-as-a-brand-community/

Printable PDF version

This article investigates the construction of rituals, shared identities and moral responsibilities of a community of Commodore Amiga computer users in early post-communist Poland. My primary aim is to examine the usefulness of the concept of brand community for consumer culture research to study the phenomenon of the emotional engagement of its users with the Amiga. Drawing from my empirical evidence, which includes analysis of Amiga related periodicals, disk magazines and other demoscene materials, I will provide an historical overview of the emergence of the Amiga in Poland, and discuss how the brand community was structured through club activities, numerous periodicals and disk magazines, and the activity of the demoscene. I will further investigate how the community constructed its rituals and shared identity, and finally focus on the social responsibilities of the community members and discuss the normative constructs of a “true” and “faux” member.


This article investigates the construction of rituals, shared identities and moral responsibilities of a community of Commodore Amiga computer users in early post-communist Poland.[1] This case study refers to the analytical framework of “brand community” proposed by consumer research scholars Albert M. Muñiz and Thomas O’Guinn (2001). This concept is an analytical framework that can be applied to provide a better understanding of how consumers engage with brands. The authors define it as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand.” (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001, 412).

A study of such a community offers valuable insights into the role of users and intermediary actors in the co-production of computer technology (Jasanoff 2004). Moreover, a Polish case study can particularly contribute to the scholarship of the cultural history of computers. Due to the emerging market economy, the manufacturer lacked control over the distribution and retail of home computers, and so the Amiga emerged here as the dominant hardware platform due to the activities of local entrepreneurs, computer clubs and the demoscene, without any significant contribution from Commodore Ltd. and the short-lived Commodore Polska (1992-1994). Thus, this case can shed more light on the cultural logic of the phenomenon of the Amiga as a community project (Maher 2012), which was, and still is, substantially supported by dedicated brand users.

Here I argue that the emergence of such a local grass roots brand community without any significant contribution from the manufacturer, and its local branch, substantially impacted on the community’ ethos. In this ethos the Amiga was redefined from a consumer product into a community project. The community not only had its own rituals, but also shared the burden of the moral responsibility for supporting, continuing and even expanding the Amiga, when it was abandoned by the manufacturer. I pay particular attention to a range of intermediary actors that constituted this community and shared the same agenda of promoting the brand and keeping it alive despite the manufacturer’s failure. The community was usually referred to as the “Polish Amiga scene” (orig. polska scena amigowa), which included a range of Amiga users, who were using this platform in some sort of creative work such as programming, music and graphic design, or applying it in the routines of the office environment. This name can be misleading since the term “scene” in computer culture jargon frequently refers to the demoscene (Reunanen 2009; Reunanen & Silvast 2014). Here the local demoscene was a part of the broader “Polish Amiga scene”.

However, as I will show, the local demoscene became a key intermediary actor which contributed to the popularity of the Amiga, but also projected its script of pursuing technical mastery over hardware and using the Amiga to make demos. Aside from the demoscene, the community also included user clubs, numerous Amiga related periodicals, importers of hardware and pirated software, local garage hardware and software industries, and those who used the Amiga in their professional careers, particularly for “creative” work. The status of users who used the Amiga merely as a gaming machine was controversial and tensions about gaming, as one of the scripts of using the Amiga (Westlake 2015; Maher 2012, 207-248), will be investigated below. During the same period in Poland there were other similar communities surrounded by similar practices, but there were much smaller. In the early 1990’s there were still prolifically active communities of 8-bit platforms: the Commodore 64 and Atari XE/XL. There was also a small Atari ST community that included mostly professional or semiprofessional musicians and the desktop publishing community. The Amiga community was definitely the largest both in terms of number of locally produced software artifacts, computer periodicals, events, as well as mainstream media coverage.

This paper contributes to this special issue of WiderScreen twofold. First, I demonstrate how using a theoretical framework from consumer culture studies, supported with concepts from science and technology studies, can enrich our understanding of the cultural logic of computer-oriented subcultures. Second, this paper focuses on a local perspective by showing how a specific nation-wide Amiga brand community emerged as a rather secluded community cut off from Western Europe by cultural and economic differences. Originally, the brand community concept was used to explore the engagement of consumers with brands in long lasting and stable market economies. My study, however, explores how such a community could define and perform its role in the context of an emerging market economy, with loosely shaped power relations between the actors who participated in the consumer culture. Such seclusion led to the development of a form of technological autarky – the conviction that during the fall of Commodore Ltd. and the rapid decline of the popularity of the Amiga in the West, the Polish Amiga scene could still thrive, supplied with software and hardware upgrades by local companies. Thus, the analysis of this community offers a new perspective on the process of the globalization of high technology markets in the 1980s and 1990s. The seminal study of the history of the Sony Walkman (du Gay et al. 1997), as well as accounts on the global expansion of high-tech multinational enterprises (for instance Henderson 2003 [1989]), focus on the successful building of companies’ global presence by establishing thriving “global-local nexuses” (du Gay et al. 2003 [1997], 78-80). This paper rather shows how a community of brand users reacted to a short lived and unsuccessful attempt of building such nexus with Commodore Polska.

The shift from state socialism to the market economy forms the backdrop to this study. I situate my case in this cultural and economic background of the emerging market economy, which lacked well-established power structures, that govern relations between manufacturers, retailers and consumers. However, it does not address the broader aspect of the political change beside the introduction of the market economy, that enabled both the massive expansion of the local private business sector, and the possibility of taking part in the economic globalization of the 1990s. While doing so I intentionally challenge the popular notion of the omnipresent impact of the political sphere on society and culture in Eastern Europe. This paper primarily focuses on a short period between 1987 and 1995, which begins with the first testimonies about the local presence of the Amiga and ends at the point which can be approximately identified as the beginning of the decline of its popularity. The empirical evidence for this article includes content analysis of a range of Polish contemporary Amiga related periodicals and disk magazines, analysis of printed and audiovisual materials from Amiga “brand fests” such as an Intel Outside party, and interviews with prominent members of the Amiga community from the retro computing website Polski Portal Amigowy and Commodore & Amiga Fan magazine. The paper is organized as follows. First, I outline the concept of brand communities and discuss its usefulness in studying the phenomenon of the emotional engagement with the Amiga. I then provide a historical perspective on the emergence of the Amiga in Poland, and the process of community building by its users, through club activities, numerous periodicals and disk magazines, and the activity of the demoscene. Next, I investigate how the community constructed its rituals and shared identity. Finally, I focus on the social responsibilities of the community members and discuss the normative constructs of a “true” and “faux” member. The overarching goal of all three sections is to provide insights into the key role of a computer brand plays in the process of the forming a community of computer users.

Brand communities and computer users

The original study by Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001) is based on empirical evidence from their fieldwork among consumers who owned Ford Broncos, Saab cars, and Macintosh computers. The authors examine such evidence with the use of sociological studies of the notion of community. While doing so, they focus on investigating how brand communities are structured upon three substantial elements of the community: shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001, 412). Their study refers to a previous study about the “subculture of consumption” of Harley Davidson owners (Schouten & McAlexander 1993; 1995). They note that Schouten and McAlexander “employ a structuralist analysis that describes a brand with a socially fixed meaning” and they outline the difference of their own approach: “We, however, see brand communities having an active interpretive function, with brand meaning being socially negotiated, rather than delivered unaltered and in toto from context to context, consumer to consumer“ (Muñiz & O’Guinn, 2001, 414).

Muñiz further continued his work on this subject and in 2006 published a study of the brand community of the Apple Newton, an ill-fated PDA from the late 1990s (Muñiz and Schau 2005). This study investigated how a community kept a technological product alive, supported its use, as well as found new possible ways of using the Newton long after Apple discontinued its support. This approach emphasizes the interpretative role a community of users can play, and attributes to them agency, instead of considering them as consumers who passively adopt cultural meanings prescribed by manufacturers and marketers. This approach can be particularly useful in explaining how users of the Amiga negotiated cultural meanings of this platform, ultimately reinventing it as a community project which lasts to this day. Information about the current developments of this community can be found on the website of the developers of the AmigaOS project.

Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001, 415) note that “[brand] communities may form around any brand, but are probably most likely to form around brands with a strong image, a rich and lengthy history, and threatening competition”. They analyze the community of Macintosh computer users and provide a cursory investigation of how the widely shared and reproduced history of Apple contributed to the formation of identity among the members of the community. This issue has been further comprehensively explored in the paper entitled “The Cult Macintosh” (Belk & Tumbat 2005).

It is no coincidence that the Amiga also became a brand around which a devoted community has formed. Jimmy Maher (2012) comprehensively discussed the image and history of this platform. While discussing the strong commitment to the Amiga by users, he used the term “platform nationalism” (Maher 2012, 185), which is consistent with the sense of shared identity among members of brand communities. Maher’s term is used somewhat metaphorical since there is a difference between a love for one’s country and one’s computer. But, if we refer to Anderson’s (1991 [1983]) classic work on nationalism and ‘imagined communities’ we will see that nations were built as imagined communities based on several factors such as common language and culture, but also on imagined scientific and technological prowess. So here we can see “platform nationalism” as a belief in technical prowess of one’s computer juxaposed to the inferiority of the competing hardware platforms. The Amiga fits into a utopian story of a technology imagined and designed by a single enthusiast, who helped “creative types” to express their creativity with graphics, animation and sound editing tools. However, according to the widely shared belief held by members of the Amiga community, aside from the competition from Atari Inc., and later the PC platform, the real threat to the Amiga came from the within. Amiga-dedicated websites (for instance http://www.amigahistory.co.uk/) that constituted contemporary forums for this brand community extensively discuss how Commodore Ltd., with a gallery of top managers, were considered as villains, driven by short-term profits, which greatly contributed to the demise of the Amiga.

Studies concerning the engagement of consumers with brands from the 2000s coincided with a trend in science and technology studies and design history to shift their attention from technology designers to the users and intermediary actors (Oudshoorn & Pinch 2003; Lees-Maffei 2009). In a seminal collection of essays, How Users Matter, which substantially contributed to this trend, we can find Lindsay’s (2003) paper on contemporary users of the 8-bit TRS-80 computer who continue to support and use this platform as a productive tool. As she (2003, 30) explains, she approaches the life of a technology as a process in which users took an active role:

This chapter shows that the co-construction of users, user representations, and technology is not a static, one-time exercise by the designers of the TRS-80, but is a part of a dynamic ongoing process in which many different groups, including the users themselves, participate.

Such a remark is also true for the Amiga’s technology in which users actively participate and even provide this platform with a long afterlife after the manufacturer’s demise. Lindsay’s chapter was published in the book section titled “Users and Non-Users as Active Agents in the (De-)Stabilization of Technologies.” I will further outline the role of users in a similar context and explain how in a specific context the communities tried to first locally “stabilize” the Amiga, and then later to prevent its de-stabilization. Lindsay uses the term “co-construction,” which for the sake of brevity here can be described as a synonym for “co-production” (Jasanoff 2004), which has become a widely used term in science and technology studies. Its introduction and spread was related to the postulate of attributing social actors, other than designers, with agency in shaping technologies. With my research background in the history of technology I also find this concept as a suitable framework for discussing the agency of different social groups in shaping the development of computer technologies. Here, I would like to discuss the possibility of using the brand community concept of Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001), but not to analyze a homogeneous social group of end users.

The rise and decline of the Polish Amiga community

The first trace of the Amiga in Poland can be found in the pages of the popular Bajtek computer magazine (1985-1996). The magazine actively collaborated with local state sponsored computer clubs and regularly covered their activities. I have previously discussed (Wasiak 2014) the role of Bajtek and the state sponsored computer clubs in the shaping of the local Polish computer culture. In January 1987 the magazine published an article about the technical details of the Amiga 1000 computer with a short note that “Maniak” in Warsaw, one of the most prolific clubs, already had it available since November 1986 (Silski 1987, 15). This computer was plausibly brought privately from the West by one of club members who made it available on the club’s premises at the local culture center to other members. In 1988, a small circle of owners of this computer model, which was a rarity in Poland due to its prohibitive price, established their own user group named the Amiga Commodore Club in the city of Kraków. Marek Hyła, the Club’s founding member, described the trajectory of learning about this computer through personal networks:

First I saw the Amiga at my friend’s place in Norway in 1987. One year later the A500 was sitting on my desk along with a color monitor and twenty floppies. This purchase was also inspired by another friend […] who replaced his C64 with the Amiga few months earlier. Together […] we became the founders of the Amiga Commodore Club, the first “movement” of Amiga users in Poland. (Hyła 2007)

The Club, active in the years 1988-1990, had an estimated number of members of about a dozen in 1988, and about one hundred in 1990. It aimed to support current Amiga users with software, program manuals, and programming books, as well as to encourage computer owners to buy the Amiga. Thus, the club played two crucial communal missions outlined by Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001, 424): integrating and retaining members and assisting in the use of the brand. The most notable club activity were regular copy parties where Amiga users could share their software libraries. In an interview for the prominent periodical Amigowiec (Polish term for Amiga user), another club activist romanticized the early Amiga users:

There was something phenomenal about this small group of Amiga owners, it were about one hundred of them in Poland at that time. [They] purchased this computer not because of fashion […] Those days people were buying the Amiga because they authentically had felt in love with her. (Kokoszczyński 1991, 15)

It is important to explain the specific meaning of the phrase “not because of fashion”. In the late 1980s, both important computer magazines Bajtek and Komputer (1986-1990), aside from short notes about the Amiga, primarily promoted the Atari ST as the future dominant 16-bit platform. Particularly the Komputer editors, with personal links to the DTP industry, regularly published promotional materials of Atari Inc. and promoted the Atari ST as a professional computer. In one Komputer issue we can even find locally made computer graphics with the message “Adios Amigo” (“Amigo” form is a Polish inflection of Amiga) (Fig. 1). The editors of Komputer also regularly boasted about the technical prowess of the Atari ST. For the emerging Amiga community such a bias helped to shape the image of the Amiga as a computer popularized in Poland by the grass-roots community outside of the mainstream dominated by the Atari community.

jack tramiel komputer
Figure 1. Jack Tramiel, who moved to Atari Inc. to develop the Atari ST, destroys the Amiga rainbow checkmark logo in a locally made computer graphics. This graphics included a copied scan of Tramiel’s face. Komputer 1986, no.8, 26.

The Amiga started to achieve much wider popularity around 1989, when the introduction of the market economy stimulated the massive growth of private trade. However, at that time Commodore Ltd still did not have an official local trading partner, thus the Amiga computers available for Polish consumers were distributed by small-scale importers and traders. One such trader provided a detailed account of the trade at a ‘computer fair’ (Wasiak 2014) in the city of Katowice. During such ‘computer fairs’ organized at the weekends in large cities one could purchase a second hand computer or equipment. However, the most prolific form of trade was the distribution of pirated software, usually copied on the spot.

One of our colleagues, with whom we were trading [in pirate software] at the fair, moved to West Germany with his parents […] So now we had an access to hardware which was much cheaper than in Poland. At the beginning we were importing one-two Amigas and sold them at the fair (of course, we did not cease trading with Amiga software, it was always profitable since the games for the Amiga were sold in large numbers). By selling Amigas 500 with peripherals such as memory expansions, external floppy drives, monitors, digitizers and joysticks, I managed to earn enough to buy an A1200 [with expensive peripherals]. Our sales were growing every day – it was the time of the Amiga [the early 1990s] and everything for the Amiga was sold perfectly. (Ramos 2009, 89)

It is remarkable to note that this interview was published in a local retro-computing magazine called Commodore & Amiga Fan (2008-2013) in a section where usually the editors published interviews with the prominent members of the C64/Amiga demoscene or the authors of popular programs. This highlights an important feature of the local Amiga community. The traders who specialized in importing the Amigas and Amiga-related equipment, as well as those who facilitated the massive flow of pirated software from the West (fig. 2, 3, 4), contributed to the stabilization of the Amiga as the dominant hardware platform. Thus, they were identified as important members of the community.

For the sake of brevity, in this paper I can only briefly mention the controversy over the pirate software traders. In early years they contributed to the stabilization of the Amiga by assisting the use of brand with a massive selection of pirate software. But later they became considered as those who de-stabilized it by hindering the growth of local software publishers, who would have helped the Amiga to stay alive by providing a steady flow of locally made programs when the Amiga software market abroad steeply declined in the mid-1990s.

amiga bajtek
Figure 2. Computer fair in Warsaw, 1989. A stand with pirate copies of Amiga games. Bajtek, 1989 no. 10, 3.
Computer fair in Warsaw Amiga
Figure 3. Computer fair in Warsaw, 1991. A stand of a teenage software trader who offers floppies with Amiga software as well as a selection of Western and Polish Amiga related periodicals. Enter. 1991, Sept., 17.
A custom made Amiga pullover
Figure 4. A custom made pullover worn by a high profile software trader who specialized in Amiga software at computer fairs. “River’s Edge” website.

The period from 1990 to 1995 was the heyday of the Amiga in Poland. At that time, the community was structured through the knowledge circulated through numerous Amiga-related periodicals and disk magazines. In those years seven different Amiga related periodicals were published. By 1995 all of them were out of print except for the Polish edition of the German Amiga Magazin (1992-1999). Similarly, most of the over 250 local disk magazines preserved in the comprehensive archive “Fat Magnus” were published in the years 1991 to 1995. Lindsay (2003, 37) notes that computer magazine writers are important mediators who play a role in the co-production of technology by circulating knowledge about computer use. In this case computer brand-related magazines also played an important role for the brand community by providing information about new brand-related products, and by offering attractive scripts of computer use. Amiga related magazines not only offered such knowledge, but also provided users with extensive coverage of community events such as copy- and demoparties, as well as content that could strengthen their identity, particularly information about the superiority of the Amiga, and its application as a creative tool. What is particularly important here, such magazines also offered space to express users’ creativity by publishing computer graphics submitted by readers (Fig 5).

gallery of computer graphics made with the C-64 and Amiga
Figure 5. A gallery of computer graphics made with the C-64 and Amiga submitted by readers. Commodore & Amiga, 1993, no.8, 35.

In years from 1989 to 1991, some of those magazines, with rather low circulation, were primarily distributed through ‘computer fairs’ (cf. fig. 3.). Here we can see an interlock of intermediary actors: ‘computer fair’ traders and magazine editors who both contributed to the popularity of the Amiga. During the period of the popularity of the Amiga in Poland there were three major gatherings that can be considered brand fests: The Amiga Game Show (1991), Intel Outside (1994), and Intel Outside 2 (1995). The “Intel Outside” slogan, also widely used in Amiga community in the West, was a response to the “Intel Inside” campaign of the branding of Intel processors (Norris 1993). There were several similar events in Western Europe, which attracted an international audience, but the Polish gatherings were rather secluded and there were virtually no guests from abroad.

Intel Outside party
Figure 6. Intel Outside party, 1994. Amiga Magazyn, 1994, no. 10, 48.

The Intel Outside parties (fig. 6) were organized until 1998. However, after 1995 those events became much smaller. While the Amiga Game Show was organized mainly by the local distributors of legal software and computer magazines, the Intel Outside parties were organized by major demoscene groups. Aside from such events there were numerous smaller demoscene parties, for instance the regular Autumn Party and Mountain Congress party series. However, Intel Outside, despite the major role of demoscene events, was also a brand fest, which welcomed visitors with no demoscene affiliation and who were simply interested in the Amiga. The dual nature of the Intel Outside party as a demoscene event and a brand fest shows how the Amiga demoscene was deeply embedded in this brand community. I will argue that the demoscene played a pivotal role in shaping the community by promoting the Amiga as a demoscene machine and thus “configuring the user” (Woolgar 1991) as someone who learns about the Amiga architecture and programming in order to make demos.

According to a rough estimate made by Marek Pampuch, the editor-in-chief of Amiga Magazyn and arguably the most prominent figure in the Amiga community, circa 100,000 to 120,000 Amiga computers, all models included, were sold in Poland until the end of 1994 (Pampuch 1994a, 6-7). The year 1994, with the bankruptcy of Commodore International, preceded by the liquidation of the short-lived Commodore Polska, saw the beginning of the steep decline of the community, which responded by evolving into two different but closely interconnected communities.

The first one was a group of dedicated users who engaged themselves in grass-roots projects for the continuation of the Amiga, such as the AmigaOne. The second one was a dedicated Amiga demoscene which were still exploring the possibilities of making new audiovisual effects with the A500 and A1200 sound and graphic chips despite the fact that PC platform soon began to outpace the Amiga in such qualities. Here I can only note that the slow demise of the Amiga scene was accompanied with the emergence of the “PC scene” (orig. scena pecetowa). Some users who adopted PCs as game or demoscene machines expressed their brand affiliation to the PC platform with their own imagery (fig. 7) and rituals. Such rituals usually included boasting about the groundbreaking qualities of the Pentium processor and the superiority of Doom (id Software, 1993) over any Amiga game in terms of technical excellence, gaming experience and the immersion of the 3D world. Further analysis of the construction of the brand loyalty of PC users, and particularly the reconstruction of the loyalty of former Amiga users, could greatly contribute to better understanding the dynamics of computer subcultures, but it is beyond the scope of this paper.

Figure 7. The symbolic demise of the Amiga in 1994 in a cartoon published by a gaming magazine. The chainsaw is a reference to Doom, a “killer app” for the PC platform. Secret Service, 1994, no.9, 13.

Community rituals

Here I focus on investigating the central imagery of the Amiga and highlight its role in making community rituals. Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001, 412) argue that brand community is

marked by a shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility. Each of these qualities is, however, situated within a commercial and mass-mediated ethos, and has its own particular expression. Brand communities are participants in the brand’s larger social construction and play a vital role in the brand’s ultimate legacy.

Here I would like to emphasize that a range of user’s activities discussed in my paper such as sharing knowledge about computer use and circulating software can be considered not as specific rituals but as commonplace practical activities that took place in computer users’ communities worldwide. However, in communities of computer users with strong brand identities, such activities can be also considered as rituals that serve the social function of creating and maintaining community (Bell 1997, 23-60). Moreover, below I will discuss a number of specific activities that substantially contributed to the creation of community.

While discussing the “cult of the Macintosh,” Belk and Tumbat (2005) explore the central role of the Mac imagery, which includes the story of building the first Apple computer in a garage, Steve Jobs’ India trip, the “1984” television commercial, and the minimalistic design of the Mac computer. While analyzing the Mac community from the early 2000s they argue that those are the core elements of the myth which underpins the shared consciousness of Mac users. The Amiga community had its own imagery. One of the key elements of this imagery was the superiority of the Amiga’s graphic and sound qualities over any other competing platform (Atari ST, PC, Mac) due to its ingenious and flexible architecture based on the coprocessor and custom graphic and sound chips (Maher 2012, 11-42). This supported a popular ritual of the Amiga community – the running of an impressive demo or a computer game to show these qualities to a larger audience. Running attractive demos for an audience was generally a popular custom among Amiga users worldwide. However, the specific case discussed below illustrates the role of ‘software fair’ traders in sharing the Amiga imagery by discussing the Walker Demo (Imaginetics, 1988), a commercial demonstration which aimed to show the quality of the digitizing tools for the Amiga. It was a highly popular animation of AT-AT vehicles from The Empire Strikes Back movie walking next to the A2000.

Year 1988. Wrocław, Sunday, computer fair. There is only one stand with the Amiga computer and there is a crowd of viewers there. Everyone is watching. No one is copying software at the moment. […] An imperial AT-AT walker slowly moves on the color monitor – this is the Walker Demo. Two individuals are looking suspiciously. This is the competition from the stands with the Atari ST. … They are simply starring in disbelief and anger. (Lifter 1991)

The aim of such a demo was to articulate a central theme of Amiga “platform nationalism”, the conviction that this computer can be used for creative work with astounding results. On the one hand, Amiga users could access such attractive audio-visual content in their own private space with demos and games. On the other hand, the Amiga was a tool for not only professional, but also amateur “creative types” (Maher 2012, 43) who were encouraged, or even obliged, to use it to express their own creativity. I will discuss such obligation in the next section on users’ responsibilities.

One of the most frequent features of both paper periodicals and disk magazines was a more or less elaborate list which informed readers about prominent cases of Amiga usage. Here I will focus on a specific elaborate article with such a list (BAD 1994, 43-44), which was published in Commodore & Amiga in 1994 and included an extensive list of the uses of the Amiga in Hollywood for producing special effects (Maher 2012, 132-142). The most popular point in this section was the Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) movie and SeaQuest DSV (1993-1996), a TV series which regularly appeared in materials of the Amiga community in order to highlight the potential of the Amiga. This list also included several musicians such as Paul McCartney, the Bee Gees and Billy Idol. In addition, this list also featured the use of the Amiga by the CIA (for unspecified educational purposes), the Israeli Air Force (for training pilots with combat flight simulators) as well as the use of CAD software for designing a stadium for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. I have chosen this specific article because the author revealed the source of information provided above, a text file, which was most likely extensively circulated within the community both on floppies and Amiga BBSes. The circulation of such a list and the emphasis on such diverse creative and professional uses of the Amiga can be identified as one of central community rituals, which provided private, mostly young, owners with an imaginary bond with media industries, celebrities and well-known organizations and offered them a sense of being in their highly attractive orbit.

The aforementioned SeaQuest DSV as well as Babylon 5 (1994-1998), which also included Amiga-made special effects, were aired on Polish television. Thus, Polish members of the community could strengthen their sense of identity with the fact that the state-of-the-art special effects, which they could regularly watch on popular TV series, were made with the same computer that they had at home. Of course, such effects were made with high-end A4000s with broadcast quality video equipment, while at home they had low-end A500 and A1200 models, but all those computers belonged to the same “strong” brand.

Here I would like to focus on one of the core features of the shared consciousness of the Polish Amiga community, namely the core distinction between “the world” and Poland. My empirical evidence suggests a difference between my case study and observations made by Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001). As they note: “We see brand communities as liberated […] from geography and informed by a mass-mediated sensibility […] in which the local and the mass converge” (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001, 415). In the Amiga community the “mass-mediated sensibility“ has a special significance as most of the central themes of the Amiga imagery are related to its use in the media industries. So, the substantial part of the experience of the brand was the contact with media objects which could be somehow attributed to the brand. However, Polish Amiga users lived in a post-communist country and experienced significant cultural, social, and economic differences from the West. So, for my case the geography is definitely relevant. The aforementioned lists showcasing prominent examples of Amiga usage, while including some information on Poland, were always divided into “Amiga na świecie” and “Amiga w Polsce” – “Amiga in the world” and “Amiga in Poland”. Similarly, the ranking lists published by Polish demoscene media always used the same distinction.

The local Polish community at the same time appropriated and shared elements of the central imagery of the Amiga from the West, as well as building its own local imagery by providing media coverage for the creative uses of the Amiga in Poland. Here I can note some significant cases covered in Amiga Magazyn, which paid specific attention to the wide promotion of the Amiga in professional activities. Their list includes the use of the Amiga by TVP, the Polish national broadcaster, for making jingles, postproduction, as well as a much more mundane task of displaying questions in a quiz show (Bobek 1994, 12-13). Equally welcomed was the rather ingenious use of the A500 for post-production in a local private TV station in the city of Kraków (Pampuch 1994b) (Fig. 8). Another issue of Amiga Magazyn includes an interview with members of the popular techno/dance band Jamrose who used the A1200 both for editing music and making music videos (Korzeniewski 1994). In addition, it is also worth mentioning that Jamrose, as Amiga-related band, gave a concert during the Intel Outside party. An interview with the band was published in another issue, in which the main theme was making music with the Amiga. Apart from this interview readers could find several articles how to make music on their Amigas. The leader of the band also encouraged Amiga users:

Q: Could you, as professionals, give some advice to Amiga musicians?

A: You should not be discouraged with the hardware you own. I assure you that the concept, not the hardware, really matters here. Even if you only have the A500 and love music, just get to work! (Korzeniewski 1994, 37).

One of the processes which took part during the demise of the Amiga was the cessation of any new information about its creative use that would stimulate the community. Muñiz and Schau (2005, 739), while discussing the religious motifs in the Apple Newton community, note that such motifs “invest the brand with powerful meanings and perpetuate the brand and the community, its values, and its beliefs.” Similarly, the steady flow of information about the high-profile use of the Amiga in creative work from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s perpetuated the community. The lack of any further information about such use was a clear indication of its demise. My reading of Amiga Magazyn from the years 1995 to 1999 and disk magazines from that time shows that the community which previously embraced high profile uses of the Amiga, such as the production of TV jingles or high profile Sci-Fi TV series and movies, evolved into a much smaller self-referential community which was perpetuated primarily by news about niche developments of the AmigaOne which came from other dedicated members of the community. At that time the community evolved into a social structure similar to TRS-80 users discussed by Lindsay (2003) – a community with a much smaller number of members, in which there was only a small percentage of passive “computer users” since most of the community members took to some extend the burden of responsibility to play one or even more roles from Lindsay’s list of designers, producers, marketers, distributors and technical support.

Figure 8. A500 used for the postproduction in a TV studio of a small local television in the city of Kraków. Amiga Magazyn, 1994, no. 3, 11.


The final section focuses on the moral responsibilities of the community members which are related to the rituals discussed above. Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001, 424) draw from classical sociological works, and note that “[m]oral responsibility is a sense of duty to the community as a whole, and to individual members of the community. This sense of moral responsibility is what produces collective action and contributes to group cohesion”. In general terms, from my research in periodicals and disk magazines, I can outline the community agenda as follows:

  1. To “stabilize” the Amiga during the turnover of 1980s and 1990s as the dominant hardware platform by convincing non-users that the Amiga is the best replacement for the aging 8-bit computers or the best choice as the first computer for home and professional use.
  2. To prevent the “de-stabilization” of the Amiga’s popularity caused by the expansion of the PC platform in both office and home environments by convincing users to stay with the brand, presenting it as a viable alternative to the PC, with its users being able to count on substantial support from the community.

One of the central tensions of the community was the legitimacy of using the Amiga as a game machine and users’ willingness to explore the technology, and a related distinction of separating users into legitimate and illegitimate members of the community. This issue was particularly acute for the community during the later years when simply playing games on the Amiga was considered as a mode of use which did not contribute to the prevention of the de-stabilization of the position of the Amiga. Muñiz and O’Guinn. (2001, 419) discuss the issue of legitimacy in brand community as follows:

Legitimacy is a process whereby members of the community differentiate between true members of the community and those who are not, or who occupy a more marginal space. In the context of brands this is demonstrated by “really knowing” the brand as opposed to using the brand for the “wrong reasons.” The wrong reasons are typically revealed by failing to fully appreciate the culture, history, rituals, traditions, and symbols of the community.

In the case of the Amiga “knowing the brand” has multiple meanings. The first meaning refers to the familiarity with the list of famous Amiga users mentioned above. The second meaning refers to technical knowledge, including about the canonical history of Jay Miner’s design of the Amiga, which included the blitter, the coprocessor which enabled modification of data within memory without burdening the CPU, and the three custom chips: Agnus, Denise and Paula. The users were required to learn at least the basics of computer science in order to successfully “share the brand” by, for instance, engaging in a technical discussion with a “non-believer”.

Here I can bring an exemplary case of “configuring the user” (Woolgar, 1991) by a demoscene member who, while providing an overview of different Amiga models available on the market, also discussed four categories of users: lamers, intermediate users, users interested in a specific professional purpose, and the “elite”, understood as hackers and demoscene members (Szczygieł 1993, 10). The author, who was a prominent demoscener himself, used the demoscene jargon terms “lamers” and “elite”. The former term was originally used as a derogative term for mediocre demoscene coders, to refer to those who only used the Amiga for gaming and who are not interested in exploring the technology beyond mastering computer games. But here the author identified lamers as those who are “not interested in the mastering of computer science knowledge” (Szczygieł 1993, 10). This explicit expression of the tension over “lamers” is an instance of an important element of tensions over “real” and “faux” brand community members (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001, 419). Currently, the memory about the Amiga in retrocomputing is primarily constructed through the prism of an excellent 16-bit game machine (Westlake 2015). Originally, every contemporary Amiga periodical and disk magazine considered in my study included a smaller or larger section with computer game news and reviews. However, according to the normative imagined Amiga user, he was allowed to play games on the Amiga only if he was also using it for some other non-controversial purposes. Here I can also give an instance of such a normative model. In the second issue of Amigowiec the editor-in-chief announced that the periodical will publish an extensive tutorial for the popular graphic editing program Deluxe Paint III (Electronic Arts, 1988; Maher 2012, 43-81) with a claim that “obviously everyone eagerly makes computer graphics with the Amiga” (Redakcja 1990, 1).

The aforementioned highly normative overview of Amiga users made by a prominent demoscene member was included here to discuss a broader feature of the local Amiga community, namely a dominance of the demoscene in terms of projecting their own scripts of Amiga use onto other users. Importantly, a significant part of the content of Amiga related periodicals was written by demoscene members. They wrote detailed reports from parties and analyzed recent trends in demos aesthetics and quality, and also provided accessible tutorials on “how to make your own demos”. They also tried to “configure Amiga users” by emphasizing the importance of learning assembly language to became a coder or to eventually master sound or graphic editing software in order to became scene musicians or graphic designers.

The influence of the script for using the Amiga as a demo machine can be illustrated with the example of the Polish translation of the Amiga Hardware Reference Manual, an Amiga “bible” of sorts. The bootleg translation of this book was published with the title Amiga Without Secrets – Make Your Own Demo (Amiga bez tajemnic – zrób własne demo). This shows how a local company, which published this translation, came up with a marketing strategy for convincing Amiga users that a hardware reference manual can be specifically used for mastering demo-making techniques.

Reunanen and Silvast (2014, 151) in their paper about the demoscene note its elitism:

the members of the demoscene wanted to distance themselves from the common uses of computers such as productivity or gaming. Instead of utility or entertainment, their interest lay in creative experimentation.

However, in this particular case study I can note two significant differences. Firstly, the Polish demoscene became much more deeply engaged in supporting the Amiga community. It is important to emphasize that demoscene members promoted the Amiga not only as an excellent platform for demoscene productions, but also as a game machine and an efficient productivity platform. Here we can attribute a higher level of moral responsibility for the brand expressed by the demoscene in Poland than in Western Europe. Secondly, the demoscene actively and widely “configured” Amiga users by encouraging or even obliging users to learn programming assembly language necessary for making demos.


One of the main obstacles which I encountered while researching this study was the lack of any other comparative analysis of computer platform nationalisms” except for the two previously discussed studies on the “cult of the Mac” among the American middle class (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001; Belk & Tumbat 2005). This gap however, is as an important field for future research, and I would like to emphasize the potential for further studies of different hardware platform situated in the context of specific regions. In this context, I would like to mention the recent monograph by Jaroslav Švelch (2018), which covers the gaming culture in communist Czechoslovakia, which focuses on the local popularity of the ZX Spectrum as the dominant hardware platform well into the 1990s. The book gives insights into some aspects of the local brand community of the ZX Spectrum. Before the global dominance of the “Wintel” platform, there were several 8 and 16-bit hardware platforms, which are now completely extinct except for some small retrocomputing communities. We may assume that shortly before the acceleration of the processes of globalization in the 1990s, and the opening up of the Internet as a means of mass communication, there was a substantial number of different nationally based and region-wide brand communities, which shaped their own community rituals and responsibilities contextualized by a limited access to hardware, software and knowledge. I believe that the concept of brand community can be widely used to carry out such investigations of forgotten local cults of home computers.


All links verified 16.6.2020


Amiga bez tajemnic – zrób własne demo. Wrocław: Hurtownia Jurex“. date of publication unknown, plausibly 1991-1992.

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Lindsay, Christina. 2003. ‘From the Shadows: Users as Designers, Producers, Marketers, Distributors and Technical Support.”’In How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology, edited by Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, 29–50. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Maher, Jimmy. 2012. The Future Was Here. The Commodore Amiga. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Muñiz, Albert M., and Thomas O’Guinn. 2001. ‘Brand Community.’ Journal of Consumer Research 27(4): 412–432.

Muñiz, Albert M., and Hope Jensen Schau. 2005. ‘Religiosity in the Abandoned Apple Newton Brand Community.’ Journal of Consumer Research 31(4): 737–747.

Norris, Donald G. 1993. ‘”Intel Inside”: Branding a Component in a Business Market.’ Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing 8(1): 14–24.

Oudshoorn, Nelly, and Trevor Pinch, eds. 2003. How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pampuch, Marek. 1994a. ‘Nie ma tego złego….’ Amiga Magazyn 12: 6–7.

Pampuch, Marek. 1994b. ‘Wywiad z TV Krater.’ Amiga Magazyn 3: 10–11.

Ramos, 2009. ‘Giełda komputerowa.’ Commodore & Amiga Fan 5: 88–89.

Redakcja. 1990. ‘Poszło….’ Amigowiec 2: 1.

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[1] Research for this paper was supported by the Polish National Science Centre grant 2016/23/D/HS3/03199. I would like to express my gratitude to Gleb J. Albert, Markku Reunanen, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments, which helped me to revise and improve my manuscript.

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

New Scenes, New Markets: The Global Expansion of the Cracking Scene, Late 1980s to Early 1990s

crackers, history, home computers, media economy, piracy

Gleb J. Albert
gleb.albert [a] uzh.ch
Dr. phil.
Department of History
University of Zurich

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Gleb, Albert J. 2020. ”New Scenes, New Markets: The Global Expansion of the Cracking Scene, Late 1980s to Early 1990s”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/new-scenes-new-markets-the-global-expansion-of-the-cracking-scene-late-1980s-to-early-1990s/

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The article reconstructs the history of underground software transfer in the second half of the 1980s between the core countries of the home computer software industry and its ‘peripheries’ both in the Eastern Bloc and in the ‘Global South’. Utilizing contemporary sources and oral history interviews, it tells the story of how the cracking scene and the informal software markets in the ‘peripheries’ interacted and influences each other, and how, in this process, the cracking scene expanded beyond its original geographical core. The article contributes to the ongoing discussions about informal media economies, adding to them a historical dimension which was hitherto overlooked.

The introduction of home computers into private households in the 1980s and early 1990s (Sumner 2012; Faulstich 2005) brought several particular developments with it – such as the establishment of new cultural practices connected with home computing, such as gaming (Fuchs 2014) or ‘bedroom coding’ (Wade 2016). Also, home-computerisation brought with it new fields of commerce – not just concerning hardware, but also software (both business and entertainment), user literature or maintenance. Furthermore, it gave birth not just to a new public sphere of computer usage, but also new subsets of computer user culture – such as hackers, crackers, BBS users, demosceners, or gamers. (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014) And last but not least, the mass spread of home computers with their inherent possibilities of lossless data replication brought about new concepts of copyright, which in the end resulted in new legislations.[1]

Those particular developments have been researched in case studies over the last decade. However, in order to analyse how these developments influenced each other, it might be productive to do it in a case study that takes a focus on transnational entanglements. After all, home computerisation did not take place simultaneously all over the globe, but rather it was a process that developed (and, on a global scale, is still developing) for several decades, and its manifestations in particular countries were always bound to developments and events occurring outside the respective countries’ borders, as the triumphant march of the home computer took place against the backdrop both of a new wave of economical globalisation and massive changes in world politics.

A perspective on transnational entanglements taken here should not just focus on the level of development and marketing of computers, but take the user as its object of research (cf. Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003). The advantage of a user-centred history of technology is, according to David Edgerton, that it can be “truly global”, as it potentially covers “all places that use technology, not just the small number of places where invention and innovation is concentrated.” (Edgerton 2007, XIII) Especially concerning home computer history, a user-based approach has already shown its strength (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014), yet transnational connections of users have been explored only rarely (Wasiak 2014a). Furthermore, an analysis of the usage of one particular technology – like the home computer – on a global scale can show not only different user cultures, but also different forms of markets forming around this technology, as Tom O’Regan shows on the example of the VCR (O’Regan 2012).

The following pages present an analysis of how, at the end of the Cold War, a ‘Western’ home computer subculture, the ‘crackers’, not only spread across borders, but also nolens volens contributed to the surfacing of new markets and new cohorts of computer users outside the core countries of the home computer industry – both on the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and in the countries of the ‘Global South’.

As the crackers were a subculture that was not only operating outside the official public sphere of home computing, but also one that has hardly received any attention as a historical subject within the institutions of computing history heritage, the source base for such an analysis is necessarily disparate. It includes the subculture’s digital artefacts and magazines preserved and meticulously sorted by amateur enthusiasts in various web databases, as well as physical artefacts such as paper-based correspondence collected by the author from former participants. It furthermore includes contemporary sources of mainstream home computer culture such as computer magazines, as well as oral history interviews with former active members of the subculture from a number of countries.

A remark on the territorial terms of the analysis: By describing the territorial expansion of the crackers’ subculture as ‘globalisation’, I do not employ the term as a description of a present state, but as a process (cf. Conrad 2013, 160). Obviously, the presence of home computers was spanning the whole globe neither in the beginning nor in the end of the time frame analysed here. ‘Globalisation’, however, can also be understood as a term describing a process in order to make tangible “the construction, the consolidation and the rising importance of world-wide interconnectedness” (Osterhammel and Petersson 2003, 24). My contribution sets out to explore this “rising importance of world-wide interconnectedness” among home computer users on the example of the cracking scene in the last years of the Cold War and the final phase of decolonisation. While there is a bias towards the developments in Eastern Europe due to the availability of sources and my knowledge of languages, the study also strives to employ sources from other parts of the world, particularly Latin America and the Middle East, insofar as they are available.

The Scene

The subculture in question never gained the same predominance in academia and popular memory as its more prominent contemporaries such as the punks, the mods, or the skinheads. Also, unlike the ‘new social movements’ that surfaced in the preceding decades, it was a ‘post-subculture’ or ‘scene’ (Bennett 2013; Hodkinson and Deicke 2007) with no explicit political goal or programme. At the time of its activity, however, it probably had an even stronger public presence, even if in a subliminal form: the digital artefacts that it produced ended up in disk drives of millions of teenagers (and quite some adults, too). The crackers – an international community composed of mostly young males – surfaced in the USA in the early 1980s yet came to full development in mid- to late-1980s Western and Northern Europe. They set themselves the goal of subjecting commercial software (mostly games) to ‘cracking’, that is removing their copy protection routines, and circulating these modified programs, dubbed ‘cracks’ or ‘releases’, past the formal distribution channels. For this goal, they organised themselves in teams or ‘groups’ which, hiding behind colourful names, fiercely competed not only with the software industry, but also with each other concerning the best ‘cracks’ and the most efficient ways of informal distribution. The goal of every cracker group was to become first in cracking and circulating a particular piece of software – an achievement that became symbolically fixed by marking the cracked version with a self-produced audiovisual opening credits, the so called ‘crack intro’ or ‘cracktro’. (Wasiak 2012; Reunanen, Wasiak, and Botz 2015; Albert 2017)

On the one hand, this ‘scene’ cultivated a self-image of a mysterious elite high above the casual computer user, and perpetuated this image in its own ranks through rigorous competition and a meritocratic hierarchy. On the other hand, however, the scene was, one could say, open towards the bottom: for each ‘elite’ group, there were dozens of ‘lame’ groups, many of them merely being cliques of school friends, who probably did not have access to brand new original software to crack, but contributed to the spreading of cracked games as well as of the knowledge about the existence of the scene itself. Many computer users knew someone who was a scene member or knew someone else who knew someone. As a Swedish cracker recalls, “[i]n the 5 schools I had friends in, I can count 15 active groups in 1986.” (Newscopy 2006; also, along the same lines: Chucky 2015) Thanks to informal software exchange networks, modified program versions with ‘crack intros’ were a common sight for the majority of computer users who were not able or willing to buy high-priced originals. This lead to an omnipresence of the cracker scene as a topic in the home computing public sphere, occasionally even making it outside the specialised computer press and into the opinion columns of national magazines and into TV talk shows. There, the scene was presented as a mysterious phenomenon, with the connotation of something criminal and forbidden.

The discourse of ‘illegality’, however, was more a part of the scene’s self-image than a fact corresponding to judicial reality. As copyright for software became a mandatory part of the European Community’s legislation only from 1993 onwards (Jongen and Meijboom 1993), the crackers’ activities remained exempt of punishment in many European states throughout the 1980s. Even in countries where copyright had been readjusted in the mid-1980s, such as West Germany and the United Kingdom (Commission of the European Communities 1986), the possible consequences for participants mostly remained within the limits of house searches and either charges being dismissed or the culprits being sentenced to relatively low fines (Tai 1986). However, while the consequences appear relatively negligible compared to other forms of crime, they still were substantial for teenagers, and raised the prestige of the persecuted in the eyes of their peers.

It is essential to say a few words about the ethical premises and economic practices of the cracking scene. The crackers’ approach to software, data and information does not fit into the well-known framework of subversive digital subcultures such as hackers or open source activists. Crackers, even while ‘liberating’ proprietary software of its user-crippling copy protection, did not follow the hackers’ philosophy of ‘All information must be free’ (cf. Levy 2001; Thomas 2003). They did not adhere to the idea of ‘open source’ either – on the contrary, they zealously hid their own disassembling and programming tricks both from their competitors within the scene and even more so from the general computer public (Hartmann 2012).[2] Programs were cracked neither to enable others to do the same nor to release them into ‘public domain’. By adding their ‘crack intro’ as a signature to the modified programs, crackers did not ‘liberate’ commercial software, but symbolically re-appropriated it. The signature served as a ‘copyright notice’ for the crack, and removing it (or, even worse, replacing it with another intro) meant breaking a taboo. (Vuorinen 2007; Reunanen, Wasiak, and Botz 2015)

Additionally, the ways of software circulation employed by the scene were everything but open, even though crackers often portrayed themselves as selfless Robin Hoods in contrast to commercially operating software pirates. Internally, software circulation happened in the form of a barter and status economy, with cracked software as a currency and speedy access to it as a status marker. Providing access to software for money was frowned upon – but this taboo concerned, in the first place, transactions within the scene itself. Computer users outside the scene were condoned to wait for cracks to trickle down from the ‘elite’ to the ‘normal’ users. However, in order to get hold of cracked software as fast as it was released by the scene, outsiders sometimes had the option of obtaining access to them through monetary investment. Several cracking groups sold cracked software on the side, often in forms of monthly subscriptions advertised in the classified ads of the computer press. It was not an honourable thing to do with regard to the scene’s own ethics, and those on the offering end rarely did so using the same pseudonyms as in the scene, but it gave them enough money to maintain their scene operations by paying their expenses (e.g. ‘Kawajoe & Geier Interview’ 1989; Saturnus the Invincible e.a. 2019).

The scene’s fragmentation ran along platform lines: Groups active on one platform rarely were active in cracking software on other platforms. This had to do with teenagers hardly being able financially to purchase multiple computer systems, as well as with ‘platform loyalties’ maintained by users of particular computer systems (Saarikoski and Reunanen 2014). As for geographical boundaries, the scene acted transnationally from the very beginning. However, it was not ‘global’ in any meaningful sense. Its original perimeter of action until the late 1980s was mostly confined to certain parts of the ‘West’, namely the USA, Canada, Scandinavia, Finland, the Benelux states, Great Britain, West Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland. This radius corresponds to the regions where home computers managed to become mass commodities at that time. More important for the scene, however, was the fact that these were the regions which featured formalised market structures for software, and most importantly, for computer games. After all, a subculture whose core activity consisted in ‘cracking’ commercial software had to rely on the availability of such software, ideally before or shortly after store date.

At the same time, however, contemporary sources attest to a territorial expansion of the scene from the late 1980s onwards. While scene activity had already been documented in Eastern Europe during the second half of the 1980s, by the early 1990s the scene finally surpassed its ‘Western’/‘Northern’ boundaries. A list of scene-affiliated bulletin board systems[3] from 1994 testifies to the presence of such scene hubs all around the globe – from Argentina and Uruguay, to Hungary and Turkey, to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand (‘World BBS List’ 1994). This expansion, particularly into Eastern Europe, is obviously connected to the conquest of new markets by the computer industry after the fall of communism – but this is just a partial explanation. Thus, the following pages set out to take a closer look at the expansion of the scene through the contacts between the cracking scene in the ‘centre’ and commercial software pirates in the ‘peripheries’.

‘Centre’ and ‘Peripheries’

What are ‘peripheries’ in this context, and what would be the ‘centre’, accordingly? The latter is to be understood as being congruent with the aforementioned countries constituting the core regions of the cracker scene’s activity – these are the same countries which hosted producers of hard- and/or software, or, at least, had formalised market structures for such goods. The ‘periphery’, however, i.e. the rest of the world, is not to be understood as a homogenous entity. It encompasses a wide range of regions, from those which did not have any noteworthy number of home computer users during the timeframe investigated (and thus fall outside the focus of this paper) to those with a growing number of computer users during the second half of the 1980s, but without access to the formal computer economies coordinated from the ‘centre’. It is important to point out that with a shifting focus from invention and marketing to actual usage of computer technology, the ‘peripheries’ were not an exception but rather the norm. As Jaroslav Švelch remarks, “in the 1980s, before international retail infrastructure and, later, digital distribution came into place, peripheries were arguably larger than centers, and much of the microcomputer world was running on pirated copies of games.” (Švelch 2018, 152)

In his introductory notes on the development of the global computer games industry, Mark J. P. Wolf (Wolf 2015a) draws up three levels of preconditions for national game industries. Firstly, these are basic preconditions such as electrification, a high degree of alphabetisation, and the presence of lifestyles which involve significant amounts of leisure time. If these preconditions are in place, a second level involves the presence of technical know-how and access to international software distribution and marketing channels. The third level is the presence of a computer-related public sphere, including clubs, specialised press, and other communication channels and networks connecting users. The regions that are considered ‘peripheries’ in our case are those where the first level of preconditions is given, yet the second and third are present only partially.

The common traits of the regions in question, encompassing such diverse regions as the already disintegrating Eastern Bloc, Southern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, are the following: Firstly, it is the weak presence (or even the complete absence) of formalised production and distribution structures of hardware and particularly software.[4] Secondly, it is either the complete absence of software copyright, or the negligent enforcement of existing legislation. Both preconditions lead to the appearance of informal economies facilitating the dissemination of hardware and software, taking place through grey markets, unofficial imports, and barter.

One might assume at first glance that in these regions an objective demand for a subculture dealing with illegitimate dissemination of software would not exist – as the whole realm of software circulation was, one might say, a sort of informal culture. There was no industry which rebellious teenagers could have targeted as their opponent. Instead, young computer fans could easily get involved in the grey market, which was, in absence of software copyright and/or its enforcement, much more open and risk-free than in countries with a formalised software economy. In Poland, for example, the motivation of teenagers to get involved in selling software copies was often not driven by the desire to earn money, but rather by thirst for new software (Grabarczyk 2015; Wasiak 2016) – a motive which corresponds to the motivations of ‘computer kids’ in the countries of the ‘centre’ to join the cracking scene.

Nevertheless, the scene did establish itself in regions outside the ‘centre’ – and this is a fact in need of explanation.

Home computer usage in the ‘peripheries’

The conditions for computer usage differed significantly between the ‘peripheral’ regions, yet they bore some common traits as well. In the countries of the Eastern Bloc (as well as in non-aligned Yugoslavia) home computers were a scarce commodity. On the one hand, the regimes saw little priority in private computer usage, and, accordingly, invested very little (and very late) in home computer development.[5] As Švelch notes for the CSSR, home computers “were not part of the plan” and were being “left out of the state agenda and available for appropriation by prospective users.” (Švelch 2018: 34) On the other hand, the high-technology embargo imposed by the Western powers on the countries of the Warsaw Pact was in place until the second half of the 1980s and made official home computer imports impossible. (Danyel 2012, 204ff; Švelch 2018) Thus, Western home computers were mostly imported privately,[6] until the first models were offered in valuta stores (such as Pewex and Baltona in Poland or Tuzex in Czechoslovakia) at the end of the decade.[7] Without official distribution networks for hardware, it made little sense for foreign software producers to look at the Eastern Bloc as a key market.

Such constellations outside the ‘centre’ were, however, not always due to consequences of the Cold War. Certain countries in Southern Europe and Latin America simply did not appear attractive enough for the decision makers in the ‘centre’ to consider them potential markets. (Lekkas 2014; Frasca 2015) Furthermore, import restrictions imposed by the governments in some of these countries, like Peru in the 1980s, prevented official imports of foreign home computer models (Marisca Alvarez 2014, 54). In other countries, such as Italy or Turkey, the American and European hardware industry did set up official distribution channels. For software producers, however, the entry into the market was not profitable enough,[8] either because software copyright legislation was absent, as was the case in Turkey, or it had hardly ever been enforced, like in Italy (‘Amiga Szene Türkei’ 1993; Lord Lotek 2003; Grussu 2012).

Thus, while citizens of the ‘peripheral’ regions had different levels of access to hardware, what they had in common was the lack of access to original software, while the demand for software was growing with the increasing number of home computers. This demand was met by informal economies. The concrete economic practices differed only slightly between both sides of the Iron Curtain. Whereas street markets dedicated to computer hard- and software, which thrived in the second half of the 1980s and were more or less tolerated by the authorities, were rather an East European phenomenon (Wasiak 2014b, 133ff; Beregi 2015; Polgár 2005, 59; Kiriya 2012), small shops selling unlicensed software copies were rather present in market economies such as Turkey, Greece, Italy or Argentina (Vigo 2016; ‘Amiga Szene Türkei’ 1993; Lekkas 2014; the woz 2009; Grussu 2012). Selling software copies through classified ads was a quite common practice across the cold-war divide and also not unknown to the countries of the ‘centre’. However, in the ‘peripheries’, due to absence of persecution, this practice took a much more prominent form and has been documented across the world, from Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia to Israel and Peru (Švelch 2010; Dr.J/The Force 2004; AJ and Nafcom 2014). Apart from these formalised practices one should not forget that the bulk of software exchange took place at a low-threshold level, by means of gifts, barter and low-scale trade among friends and colleagues. (Švelch 2018)

Those protagonists of the informal economy, however, who practiced software sales on a semi-professional level, did more than just copying disks. Not only did they create their own, often quite creative packaging for their goods, but they also added – not unlike cracking groups – intros to the software they imported and sold, with texts advertising their business.[9] These sellers did not only appropriate practices of the crackers, but also of the ‘other side’, of the software industry: They often built copy protection routines into their unlicensed copies in order to construct monopolies around software and to prevent both competitors and customers to copy their products (Schneider 1986; AJ and Nafcom 2014; ‘Perestroika Software’ n.d.).

Platform simultaneity

The question that necessarily arises before the reader at this point is where these sellers got their software from. As hinted earlier, ‘Western’ crackers were an important source for the software peddlers in the peripheries. However, if one looks at the national level, this was not always the case. For such transnational contacts and software transfers, there had to be one important precondition, namely the simultaneity of an active cracking scene on a particular computer platform in the ‘centre’ on the one hand, and the popularity of the same platform in the particular ‘periphery’ on the other hand.

Home computing in the 1980s was shaped by mutually incompatible computer platforms competing on an oversaturated market. The ZX Spectrum (1982), the Atari ST (1985), the Commodore 64 (C64, 1982) and the Commodore Amiga (1985) were merely the most popular ones, while dozens of more or less successful competitors were hitting the market each year. Those platforms, however, did not co-exist on the market throughout the whole decade. Home computer models grew old quickly, were replaced by more powerful machines, or disappeared from the market for other reasons such as mismanagement or bad marketing. The ‘peripheral’ regions, however, particularly the economically isolated Eastern Bloc, were cut off from this development until the second half of the 1980s. When computers started seeping in into these countries, the potential users often just strove to have a ‘proper’ computer at all, its market success notwithstanding (Kirkpatrick 2007). In this situation, platform loyalties, common to computer users in the ‘centre’ (Saarikoski and Reunanen 2014), did not play a role at first.

After the import embargo against the Eastern Bloc had been loosened by the mid-1980s, this situation was taken advantage of by ‘Western’ hardware companies, who used to opportunity to create “secondary markets” (Lobato and Thomas 2015, 98) for outdated computers. In cooperation with the local valuta store chains Pewex and Baltona, Atari exported their XL/XE model (1983/84), which had already lost the fight against the C64 on the market, into Poland in the second half of the 1980s (Wasiak 2014b, 134–35). In the Czechoslovak valuta store chain Tuzex, one could buy the obscure Sharp MZ 800 microcomputer (1985) which enjoyed little success anywhere else besides its native Japan (Švelch 2018: 50-52). Likewise, Commodore managed to sell significant numbers of their less successful C16 home computer (1985) to users in Hungary and Mexico in the course of the second half of the 1980s. The most prominent example, however, was the ZX Spectrum which gained a second life in the late 1980s all over Eastern Europe, particularly in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the USSR (as well as its follow-up states after 1991) – a British 8-bit home computer, immensely popular at first, but by the mid-1980s swept away from the market by the C64. (Stachniak 2015; Švelch 2018)

The users may have been very happy with these machines – but they were confronted with the problem that, by the time these computers became popular in their countries, no commercial software was being produced for them anymore. Thus, there were also no more crackers left in the ‘centre’ that were active on these platforms. As the cracking scene was dependent on a steady flow of commercial software to be cracked, the commercial death of a platform caused scene activity on the platform to cease and its protagonists to move on to other computers. Consequently, software peddlers in the ‘peripheries’ could not count on the cracking scene as a software source for these platforms. Both the shadow economies and the subcultural communities that formed around such machines in the ‘peripheries’ did so rather independently from the ‘West’. Transnational contacts and software exchange between ‘peripheral’ regions – e.g. between Czechoslovak and Yugoslav, or between Polish and Soviet users and grey market protagonists – were more important for them than the contacts to (scarce) co-users of these platforms in the ‘centre’. (Švelch 2018, ch. 5; Stachniak 2015, 19; Wlodek Black, n.d.)

There were, however, platforms that were being actively used in the ‘centre’ and the ‘peripheries’ at the same time. This was the case with the C64, which, despite having a hard time to prevail against its cheaper outdated competitors, still had significant user bases in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, as well as Latin America (thanks to the relative proximity to the USA and the resulting possibility of private imports through family members and migrant workers). This was even more the case with the Amiga, which came out only in mid-1985, and could thus develop its user base almost simultaneously in the ‘centre’ and in the ‘peripheries’. Hence, on these platforms there were possibilities for exchange and software transfer between crackers in the ‘centre’ on the one hand, and grey market software dealers and users in the ‘peripheries’ on the other hand.

Setting out for contacts

It is not completely clear how exactly the grey market protagonists in the ‘peripheries’ became aware of the cracking scene as a potential software source. Probably it was through software copies with crack intros that had come into the countries through private imports, or knowledge of the scene that derived from migrant labour networks between ‘peripheries’ and ‘centre’ – e.g. between Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Italy or Mexico on the one side, and Germany, Austria, or the United States on the other (Cervera and Quesnel 2015; Vigo 2016). Primary sources and recollections, however, attest to numerous contact attempts from the ‘peripheries’ directed at the cracking groups in the ‘central’ regions.

Not all those contact attempts were as spectacular as the one retold by a former scene protagonist from Cologne, Germany, a member of the Amiga cracking group Vision Factory: One day around 1989–1990, as his story goes, the group received a letter in their P.O. box, sent by a businessman from the United Arab Emirates asking them for a meeting. After their curiosity had won over their nervousness, the group members went to a high class restaurant where the meeting was to be held. There, the elegant businessman laid out his request: He wished to be supplied with cracked software on a regular basis in order to resell it in his chain of computer stores in Abu Dhabi. Moreover, he asked for exclusive copy protection to be added to the cracked programs to prevent them from being copied by his customers. After some hesitations, the crackers gave in, and from there on they received a monthly cheque worth 2000 German marks for a period of time – money which they would use to sustain their group’s operations. (Subzero 2016)

One could take this for a cock-and-bull story, common among software pirates just as much as among maritime ones – if only there were no mentions of dubious software dealers from the Arabian Peninsula in the contemporary computer press (Butscher 1990), and numerous primary sources hinting at similar, even if less spectacular, contacts.[10] The letter of a Yugloslav software dealer named Dragoslav to the Dutch cracking group 1001 Crew from December 1986 (fig. 1) can serve as an example of how such contacts would take place. The author of the letter, even while being a complete nobody in the eyes of the recipient – a crew that had a legendary standing in the scene and beyond –, emerges as a highly self-confident and determined business partner who knows exactly what he wants, namely “to make good and all-inclusive connection for buying all top new cracked programs”. And as if to make himself appear knowledgeable of scene-internal quality standards, he specifies that he wishes “no freez[e] frame, no icepick” – terms for inferior ways of cracking with the help of hardware tools. (Dragoslav V. 1986)

Figure 1. Letter from Dragoslav V. to Honey/1001 Crew, 15 December 1986.

The taboo surrounding such forms of monetary transactions is so powerful that it remains impossible to establish whether a business relation came out of this first encounter.[11] After all, the cracking ‘game’ was not ‘played’ to generate monetary income, and such practices were frowned upon in the scene’s internal media discourse, as they were considered to further the risk of persecution. At the same time, however, scene members in an underground magazine argued that selling cracked software was, ‘as long as it stays within limit, indispensible for the swappers’ (‘Kawajoe & Geier Interview’ 1989), that is, for those members of a group whose job was to spread the cracked software via postal networks. This scene ‘job’ brought about rather high running costs – 200 to 300 German marks a month, according to the same authors. (‘Kawajoe & Geier Interview’ 1989) The bigger the cracker group and the higher its position in the scene-internal hierarchy, the more were its running costs, even more so from the late 1980s onwards, when spreading software through the post made way for landline data transfers via modem, resulting in either high phone bills or the need to acquire stolen calling card numbers, not to forget the high prices of the appropriate hardware. The monthly sum of 2000 marks which the German crackers received from the Arabian businessman was mostly spent on acquiring modems and other hardware for the group members (Subzero 2016).

However, it was not just the money that made deals with ‘peripheral’ software salesmen attractive for crackers. It was also the appeal of transnational communication, which was not an everyday occurrence in the days before WWW and social media. As a scene veteran remembers, “with […] software we suddenly got a means into our hands […] to make contacts with people in other countries with whom we otherwise would have never gotten in touch.” (MWS 2015) The more far-away and ‘exotic’ such contacts were, the more fascinating they seemed to ‘Western’ teenagers. While top cracking scene members usually were quite picky when it came to software exchange partners in their own region, they were willing to drop their elitist attitude for the sake of an exotic contact. Irata, for example, a swapper from Düsseldorf and one of the most prominent figures of the 1980s German cracking scene, maintained an intensive floppy disk penpalship with a Japanese C64 user. (Irata 2015) From the point of the scene’s barter economy (and monetary economy, too), this contact was useless to Irata, since a contact from Japan, famous for arcades and video consoles but not for home computer games, could not provide him with any new or exclusive software, and, for that matter, did not offer him any money for cracked software from Germany either. It simply was considered ‘cool’ and interesting to be in touch with someone from a country that seemed exotic and far away.

From mimicry to transformation

The software peddlers from the ‘peripheries’, however, could not just rely on their partners’ goodwill and thirst for exotic contacts. They needed reliable sources for freshly cracked software, and thus had to pay for it. Gradually, however, they began to understand the economic principle of the cracking scene, by which outsiders had to pay for software, while members of the scene were able to partake in the internal barter economy. The Arab businessman with his full wallet was rather an exception among ‘peripheral’ grey market protagonists, many of which were teenagers and young adults who peddled software first and foremost because they wanted to have some fresh games for themselves.

Thus, eager to save money, many ‘peripheral’ protagonists attempted to become part of the scene’s internal barter economy by acting like scene members themselves. However, there was often more to it than just a performance of mimicry in order to get free software. Some of the software sellers fell prey to what Roger Caillois, in his writings on the roots of mimicry in nature, described as “temptation by space” (Caillois 1984, 28). Operating in the subcultural milieu and mimicking scene groups, they, in the end, really became scene members on their own right.

This subcultural mimicry took place on different levels – first of all, on the level of etymology. Software sellers began appearing under English names based on typical cracking groups names. In Yugoslavia, names like Yugoslav Cracking Service, North Slovene Cracking Service, Dubrava Cracking Service or Maribor Crackers emerged (see The C-64 Scene Database); in Turkey, as a contemporary computer journalist noted down, one could meet cliques of young software pirates operating under the guise of Istanbul Cracking Organisation or United Crackers of Turkey (‘Amiga Szene Türkei’ 1993). These individuals and collectives did hardly do any cracking in a meaningful sense – after all, there was no original software in these countries that needed to be cracked. The protagonists hiding behind such names were almost exclusively pirate software importers and resellers who obtained cracked programs from abroad and resold them locally. Like ‘real’ cracker groups, however, they added intros to the games they imported, in order to take credit for the import and local distribution of the piece of software, and to promote their business.

These mimetic gestures were aimed both at the local and the transnational audience. The appearance as a ‘real’ scene group was meant to enable the local pirates to enter the transnational networks of the scene and use them on equal terms with those in the ‘centre’. A Turkish contemporary witness describes the motivation for doing so as follows:

The Joker Crew was also running a computer shop called ‘Compushop’ […] Like, originally they are shop but they recognized that being a group has some advantages… […] If you run a computer shop in [these] days, you need software to sell. Where can you find software? There is no thing called ‘original software’. Shops must buy games from groups. Why pay to groups? If you become a group, you can swap and import games for free :) and sell them in your shop. (Vigo 2016)

Unlike the quote suggests, though, this was more than just a masquerade of a computer shop owner to obtain access to free software. The Joker Crew, active between 1989 and 1992, became known to their international partners not just as a software importer, but as a creative computer collective, producing their own software tools and computer-generated music.[13]

Figure 2. Classified ad by “Lonely Cracker Man”, 1987.

The appearance as a scene group was also attractive in the local context, as the customers of the local pirates had already been at least superficially familiar with the cracking scene through the crack intros which they could often see featured in the games they bought. By taking on the guise of a cracking group, the local pirates could provide their products with more credibility. A case in point is a classified ad from Moj Mikro, one of the leading Yugoslav home computer magazines, by a software seller from Zaječar which is now in Serbia (fig. 2). Here, one can observe mimicry going in two directions, mimicking both the professional industry and the cracking scene. On the one hand, the design of the advert is sober and professional, and the logo is clearly inspired by IBM. On the other hand, though, the seller calls himself ‘Lonely Cracker Man’ and advertises his services with the argument that he is “the only Yugoslav group [!] which cooperates with famous European groups” such as Triad or Hotline. (Lonely Cracker Man 1987) The latter sales pitch points to the fact that cracking groups from the ‘centre’ (and their crack intros) functioned as seals of quality – and by posing as contacts of these groups, the local commercial pirates could claim this level of quality for their goods.

Figure 3. Classified ad by “Eagle Soft”, 1989.

These mimetic practices could sometimes take rather excessive forms, such as a Yugoslav seller introducing their street address in their intro as a ‘PLK’ (Yugoslav Cracking Service, n.d.) – the acronym for ‘Postlagerkarte’, an anonymous P.O. box service offered by the German Post which was often used by crackers (Albert 2015), with PLK numbers frequently displayed in German crack intros as contact addresses for the cracking groups. Also, appropriations of groups’ ‘trademarks’ were common, such as in the case of another Yugoslav software vendor (Eagle Soft 1989) not only advertising under the name ‘Eagle Soft’ – the name of a famous US cracking group –, but also using Eagle Soft’s trademark intro, an eagle carrying a floppy disk in its beak, as their logo (fig. 3).

It can be safely assumed that the author of the advert did not ask the original Eagle Soft group for permission to use their logo. However, such appropriations became ‘legalised’ (and the borders between subculture and commercial piracy became even more blurred) in the early 1990s, when internationally operating cracking groups in the ‘centre’ began awarding software market protagonists in the ‘peripheries’ the privilege of being their official regional sections – a privilege paid for in cash. Such franchising practices, reported particularly from Italy and Latin America, were mentioned only as part of gossip and mutual accusations in the contemporary subcultural media (Red Sector 1990; Scorpie/F4CG 1992; DHS/IBB 1992; E$g 1990; ‘Pand(or)a’s Box & Gossips’ 1991), yet oral history interviews (Irata 2015; Subzero 2016) confirm the omnipresence of these practices. Both sides profited from such interactions. For the cracking groups in the ‘centre’ they meant, besides having an additional source of revenue, a growth of prestige: with ‘headquarters’ in regions beneath Western Europe and North America, they could stage themselves as true global players. For the ‘peripheral’ protagonists who resold the software gained through such franchising this meant a growth of prestige as well, which could be used both locally and transnationally: in their contacts to cracking groups abroad, they could act as members of an internationally well-respected group, while in the eyes of their local customers, they were representatives of a global ‘brand’ that stood for quality software.

New sceners

The availability of pirate software both in the Eastern Bloc and in the ‘Global South’ had far-reaching consequences which have already been highlighted in several case studies (Lekkas 2014, 2013; Wasiak 2014b; Marisca Alvarez 2014, 2013; generally: Castells and Cardoso 2012). Not only did the transnational activities of the cracking scene, which (either unknowingly or consciously) supplied the goods for this shadow economy, help advance software distribution to regions that were not covered by formalised commercial channels.[14] The fact that users who were cut off from the global software distribution networks were supplied with software by shadow economies also had long-term consequences: When economic globalisation reached its highest point and copyright laws were adjusted to digital content in the majority of countries by the mid-1990s, the ‘peripheries’ had noteworthy strata of computer-literate users and, thus, the preconditions for the emergence of national IT and entertainment software industries. (Wolf 2015b)

Moreover, informal markets tend to be a fertile ground for the emergence of cultural structures that surpass the actual economic activities (Mörtenböck and Mooshammer 2016, 182). This is the case with a less explored consequence of piracy in the ‘peripheries’: the territorial expansion of the cracking scene itself. In the ‘peripheral’ regions, more and more computer collectives surfaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s that saw themselves not as protagonists of the shadow economy, but as ‘scene groups’, i.e. as being part of the global scene networks and embodying the cracker scene’s barter-economic ethos.

Through the visual marks that crackers had been leaving behind in the software sold by ‘peripheral’ dealers, computer users became aware that besides the local pirates and the foreign software companies, there must be some other protagonists involved in the digital artefacts they were using. Many users were fascinated by the crack intros and indulged in speculations about their origins. As a teenage protagonist of the software street markets in Poland recalled, “I think that I thought of [crackers] as… well I think that I imagined them to be basically older than me. […] I was thinking about them as wizards.” (Grabarczyk 2015) While he never had dared to try and contact these mysterious crackers using the P.O. box addresses found in their intros because he did not consider his English to be good enough (Grabarczyk 2015), other users on the ‘peripheries’ were more courageous (Wasiak 2014b, 147). For the aforementioned Turkish contemporary witness, it was already his attempt to get new games as quickly as the shops that brought him in contact with foreign cracking groups:

I was in a shop and buying some games with my friend. I asked the shop owner ‘Hey Abi, how do you import games here?’ He said he was buying games from groups… What? What group? What is group? Where can I find a group? […] While we were talking, a guy entered the shop. Owner: ‘Look, he is one of them’ […] I asked him ‘Hey, I heard that it is possible to bring games to Istanbul via groups’. […] Guy asked if I could write a letter in English… He gave me a disk and [said:] ‘Look, there are some programs called disk-mags [i.e. disk magazines]… There is a corner in the mag called contacts… Look there…. Prepare a disk and copy the thing you like [on] that disk… And send that disk to those addresses you choose’. I went back home like light-speed. (Vigo 2016)[15]

Soon, this teenager would become an important protagonist of the scene in Turkey – a scene which brought forward many groups that didn’t regard themselves merely as local software distributors, but looked for (and found) connections to the international scene. Similar developments took place in Eastern Europe from the late 1980s onwards. The crackers in the ‘centre’ reacted to this at first with bewilderment, like the Austrian scene member who wrote in 1988 under the headline “The East is Coming”: “Have you ever heard of groups like ‘H.I.C.’ or ‘F.B.I.’? Well, these crews are from Hungary!” (Big Ben/Cosmos 1988) Soon, however, as the first Western European teenagers got to travel behind the Iron Curtain, they were excited to meet computer kids who were interested in the same machines like themselves.[16] Quickly, this transnational exchange became a normality, resulting in cooperation projects between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ groups – such as the Transcom & Victory Copyparty, which took place in August 1991, on the eve of the Yugoslav Wars, in the Serbian town of Subotica and was organised by the local group Victory and the Belgian group Transcom. While the former took care of the venue, the latter advertised the gathering in ‘Western’ cracker magazines and organised a trip of Belgian scene members to the event. In the end, the ‘Westerners’ could enjoy a summer vacation and software swapping without fear of persecution, while the locals had a chance to expand their international contacts and meet them in person.[17]

But before such personal encounters could take place, the new scene groups used the international scene diskmags (‘disk-magazines’, digital magazines on floppy disks), and particularly their classified ads sections, to make themselves heard and to obtain international contacts. At the end of the 1980s, one could find in them contact adverts from countries which were neither on the scene’s map nor on the map of home computing altogether in the previous years – like South Africa or Costa Rica (‘Advertisements’ 1989). These new scene protagonists did not only send in adverts. They also contributed opinion pieces and reports on their countries. In the latter, they frequently used the opportunity to write themselves into the scene discourse of barter economy, friendship and meritocracy – and they did so by rhetorically distancing themselves from the local practices of selling cracked software. (Luxury Boy 1990; E$g 1990)

Of course, these new scene groups were confronted with the dilemma that, due to the lack of software industries in their regions, they had nothing to contribute to the scene’s barter economy. As a Turkish scene member wrote in his diskmag article: “In Turkey SWAPPING software is not illegal. That is great. But you can’t find any original [software] here. So there is no chance for the cracking.” (Microchip/TACS 1989) Acting as crackers for foreign groups was not feasible either, as it would have taken too long for suppliers from the “centre” to send them any original software.

Many scene groups from the ‘peripheries’, however, were able to solve this problem: they began to create content that was acceptable as a currency in the scene’s barter economy besides cracked games (Vigo 2016): intros, compilations of self-produced computer music (‘musicdisks’), disk magazines, and, most importantly, demos – that is, programmed audiovisual demonstrations that were not put in front of a cracked game anymore, but were released as stand-alone productions. These new groups came just in time for the differentiation of the cracking scene that was happening at the same time, around 1989–1991, when more and more programmers, graphics artists and musicians who had previously created crack intros began to focus on producing audiovisual content in the aesthetic tradition of the intros. This process of differentiation resulted in a new digital subculture, the demoscene, which retained many of the cracking scene’s practices, aesthetical preferences and ethical traits, yet did not engage in the circulation of cracked software. (Botz 2011; Reunanen 2014; Hartmann 2017) Out of the need to have something to contribute, some of the groups from the ‘peripheral’ regions quickly came to prominence in this new environment as creative computer artists.

Between transnational and local piracy ethics

As mentioned above, many of those ‘new’ scene groups in the ‘peripheries’ used every opportunity to distance themselves from selling software. This made them attractive for those local computer users who felt being ripped off by commercial pirates. At the same time, those who were active in the informal software trade felt alienated and even intimidated by this new habitus: the derogatory diskmag articles against commercial pirates held back those teenagers who had been active as grey market salesmen on a small scale from joining the ‘new’ scene. (Grabarczyk 2015)

This conflict between different ethics of software circulation – the local informal markets and the new ‘imported’ subcultural ethics – can be illustrated using the example of Peru. During the 1980s, the Latin American country’s economy was in ruins and suffered from international isolation. (Oertzen and Goedeking 2004, 98–112) There were no official distribution networks for foreign hardware and software; Peruvians obtained their home computers from relatives in the USA or on trips abroad. In order to meet the demand for spare parts and software, small computer shops began to appear in Peru’s capital, Lima. Due to the lack of official software imports, the store keepers obtained cracked software, mostly from the USA, removed the crack intros, often implemented their own copy protection routines, and resold the software in their shops. (Marisca Alvarez 2013, 2014)

A Peruvian teenager, who later would assume the nickname Mr. Byte, moved to Lima with his parents in 1986 after having grown up in Italy. There he had bought his C64 and received a first glimpse of the European cracking scene. In Peru, he was bewildered at first by the way local entrepreneurs dealt with cracked and re-protected software, but then he reacted in a way he had learned in Europe: Together with some friends, he founded Peru’s first ‘real’ cracking group under the colourful name of Twin Eagles Group (TEG). Unlike other early ‘peripheral’ groups, they were indeed worth calling themselves a cracking group: they removed the copy protection routines from the Peruvian pirate copies, added their own intros to the software, and circulated the newly re-cracked programs widely, drawing the ire of shop owners, but at the same time earning a Robin-Hood-like reputation among local home computer users. Additionally, they were able to quickly establish contacts with cracking groups abroad, and thus often had new software before the local software peddlers had it. Soon, other groups inspired by TEG began to form in Lima, and in December 1991, the first ‘TEG Copy Party’ in the capital was able to attract over 60 participants (‘TEG Copyparty’ 1992). After the Peruvian copyright reform of 1996, which would outlaw the selling of pirate software and drive the local grey market sellers out of business (and, additionally, derive TEG of programs to crack), the group would move on to become a game development collective, releasing the first commercial Peruvian game in 1999.

With their self-confident path from cracking group to national games development pioneer, TEG succeeded in “negotiating their inclusion into global practices of software development and of gaming culture”, as concluded by Peruvian researcher Eduardo Marisca Alvarez (Marisca Alvarez 2013, 5). However, this success story, recently retold by Mr. Byte in a podcast episode (AJ and Nafcom 2014), leaves out one crucial detail that is exemplary of the crackers’ ambiguous relationship with monetary economy as well as the contradictions between the different ethics of software circulation in the ‘centre’ and the ‘peripheries’. While TEG are retrospectively staging themselves as digital Robin Hoods, their own diskmag, released between 1990 and 1992, shows that they had to succumb, from time to time, to the monetary practices of the local software economy. In the interviews and individual portraits published in their periodical, they frankly admitted to selling their cracks for money sometimes. Otherwise, so their justification went, they would not have been able to afford the postal fees for software swapping with their international scene contacts. (‘Entrevista a Mr.ByteTEG’ 1991; ‘Entrevista a Overmind/TEG’ 1991; ‘Entrevista a Hawkins’ 1992) Thus, TEG took on the task of bringing scene ethics from the ‘centre’ into the local context as well as putting Peru on the international scene map. However, in order to achieve this, they had to partake in local grey market practices.


The processes of transformation, exchange and entanglement outlined here still require closer scrutiny. However, this outline already allows to draw some conclusions which embed the topic in wider historiography beyond the history of home computing.

Firstly, the combined study of informal economies and subcultural practices offers a new perspective on the processes of home computerisation, its dependence on political and social factors, and its transnational aspects. Home computerisation appears not as a process that unfolds only between development, research and marketing, but as a bundle of processes which are shaped by (mis-)use of technology and unintended consequences (cf. Söderberg 2010). Also, the findings provide a historical underpinning to Ramon Lobato’s and Julian Thomas’ deconstruction of the stereotype of ‘unproductive’ piracy. (Lobato and Thomas 2015, 59–60) This case study highlights the role software piracy played in the global triumphant march of the home computer – and said triumphant march cannot be reduced to a success story of invention, entrepreneurship and economic globalisation. Furthermore, the analysis of the interactions between the cracker subculture and commercial pirates as well as the consequences of these encounters allow for a history of new markets and industries beyond the narratives of innovation that are omnipresent in the historiography of the computer and IT industries. The new economies that surfaced through the interaction of subcultural and commercial piracy were not shaped by ‘disruptive innovation’, but by multilayered mimetic processes.

Secondly, the findings foreground the role of subcultures in the process of the creation of new markets. In supplying the ‘peripheries’ with software, shadow economy entrepreneurs were not the only protagonists: the contribution of teenagers in the ‘centres’, partaking in the process not primarily for money but for fun and competition, was just as crucial. At the same time, the fact that their subcultural activities had ‘entrepreneurial’ traits raises the question whether there can be observed a change in the character of youth cultures and subcultures corresponding with the appearance of early digital technologies as mass consumer commodities. (Albert 2017)

Furthermore, it is possible to embed the findings of this study into broader questions of contemporary history. It has been often pointed out that the period ‘after the boom’ (Doering-Manteuffel and Raphael 2012), the end of Fordism and the onset of neoliberal policies in the 1980s produced not only victims, but also significant strata of ‘winners’, particularly in connection with the new wave of globalisation (Bösch 2016; Wirsching 2006, 442). Computer kids expanding their subculture into new territories and even making some pocket money out of this can surely be considered a prime example of such ‘winner’ strata beyond the political and financial elites, benefitting from the structural interruptions of late-Cold War societies. Enterprising computer enthusiasts – both crackers and unofficial software vendors – were the ‘winners’ of both the Cold War and early neoliberalism, yet winners whose story still waits to be told and put in context.


All links verified 16.6.2020

Contemporary sources

NB: The cracker magazines mentioned here can be found and downloaded from http://www.demozoo.org.

‘Advertisements’. 1989. Bad Tongue, no. 5.

‘Amiga Szene Türkei’. 1993. Amiga Special, no. 2: 61–62.

Belgrade Software Dealer. 1993. BSD Intro. MS-DOS. https://demozoo.org/productions/111876/.

Big Ben/Cosmos. 1988. ‘The East Is Coming!’ Illegal, no. 31.

Butscher, Dieter. 1990. ‘Kein Kavaliersdelikt. Raubkopieren kann teuer zu stehen kommen’. c’t, no. 2: 64–72.

Commission of the European Communities. 1986. The Software Industry. Social Europe, Supplement 6/86. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

DHS/IBB. 1992. ‘E$G of Italian Bad Boys – Winterview!’ Bad Tongue, no. 11.

Dragoslav V. 1986. Letter to Honey/1001 Crew. 15 December. https://gotpapers.scene.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/dragoslav_v._to_honey_19861215.jpg.

E$g. 1990. ‘We Scream BBS, We Download to Survive’. Bad Tongue, no. 6.

Eagle Soft. 1989. ‘Eagle Soft [advert]’. Moj Mikro, no. 11: 44.

‘Entrevista a Hawkins’. 1992. Smiling Panda, no. 4.

‘Entrevista a Mr.ByteTEG’. 1991. Smiling Panda, no. 1. http://www.tegperu.org/tegperu/default.jsp?target=/teg1989/spanda/default.jsp.

‘Entrevista a Overmind/TEG’. 1991. Smiling Panda, no. 1. http://www.tegperu.org/tegperu/default.jsp?target=/teg1989/spanda/default.jsp.

‘Kawajoe & Geier Interview’. 1989. Cracker Journal, no. 17: 18.

LKJ/Transcom. 1990. ‘The Party in Yugoslavia’. CCCP, no. 9: 4.

Lonely Cracker Man. 1987. ‘Lonely Cracker Man [advert]’. Moj Mikro, no. 10: 63.

Lord Reagan. 1991. ‘Computers, Video Games, IBM’s Etc. in the Soviet Union’. The SCD Report, no. 9 (August).

Luxury Boy. 1990. ‘The Yugoslavian Scene’. CCCP, no. 7: 3.

Microchip/TACS. 1989. ‘A Reportage from Turkey’. Bad Tongue, no. 5.

‘Pand(or)a’s Box & Gossips’. 1991. Smiling Panda, no. 3.

Red Sector. 1990. ‘Red Sector Have a New Mission: To Kill Paranoimia!’ Criminal, no. 1.

Schneider, Boris. 1986. ‘Neues aus dem Sumpf’. 64’er, no. 8: 13–15.

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[1] A legal history of home computing still remains to be written. For precursor debates from the mainframe age on software copyright, see Con Díaz 2016. For the connection between the appearance of new technical media and debates over intellectual property rights, see Dommann 2019. Particularly the debates around the Xerox machine (p. 161–163) are considered by her as predecessors of similar debates over computing.

An early version of this paper was published in German as: Subkultur, Piraterie und neue Märkte. Die transnationale Zirkulation von Heimcomputersoftware, 1986–1995. In Wege in die digitale Gesellschaft. Computernutzung in der Bundesrepublik 1955-1990, edited by Frank Bösch, 274–99. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2018.

[2] For a contrarian retrospective view of a scene veteran on this question, see Walleij, n.d.

[3] Bulletin board systems (BBS, also colloquially known as ‘boards’ or ‘mailboxes’) were an early form of online communication which took place outside the Internet. The hubs of this decentralised network were home computers running special BBS software, allowing other users to log in using modems attached to landlines in order to exchange data and messages. BBSs became the most popular form of social networking and data exchange in the cracking scene from the late 1980s onwards, making obsolete the older tradition of ‘mailswapping’, i.e. exchanging disks by the post. On BBSs, see most recently, Driscoll 2014, as well as Driscoll’s contribution in the present volume.

[4] The case of Hungary, where professional game programmers existed already in the mid-1980s, is just an exception that proves the rule: These programmers functioned, with blessing of the authorities, as outsourced manpower for the British industry, and the games they created were not intended for the domestic market. See Beregi 2015.

[5] For some of the rather unsuccessful home computer models developed in the Eastern Bloc, see Malý 2014.

[6] These private imports could take on substantial dimensions: For 1987 alone, the number of home computers privately imported to Poland is estimated at 30.000 (Budziszweski 2015, 401). In Czechoslovakia, the number of ZX Spectrum machines for the same year is estimated to be between 80.000 and 100.000 (Švelch 2018: 52), a substantial number of them having entered the country as a result of private imports and smuggling.

[7] On Poland: Wasiak 2014b. On Czechoslovakia: Švelch 2018. On Hungary: Beregi 2015. Yugoslavia was a special case, as the domestic home computer assembly kit ‘Galaksija’ enjoyed a wide popularity and could, to a certain extend, meet the demand for home computers. See Jakic 2014.

[8] See for the case of Brazil as discussed by the US software industry: Executive Director’s Report, May 1988, in: Brøderbund Software, Inc. collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong (Rochester, NY), box 13, folder 9.

[9] On Polish grey market software dealers and their creativity, see Wasiak 2015. On Argentina: the woz 2009. For an example from Yugoslavia: Belgrade Software Dealer 1993.

[10] For examples from Israel, see Dr.J/The Force 2004.

[11] E-mail correspondence with recipient of the letter, January to March 2016.

[12] For the ambivalence between “groups” and “firms” in the Polish context of the 1980s, see Wasiak 2016, 162–64.

[13] See the group’s entry at the Commodore 64 Scene Database: http://csdb.dk/group/?id=1462.

[14] This effect of the cracking scene’s activity was also felt within the regions of the ‘centre’. See: Wade 2016, 56–57; Wasiak 2014a.

[15] For a similar contact letter from Turkey to a German scener, see S.W.A.T./Bronx 1990.

[16] See, for example, the detailed travel report by a US-American scene member to the Soviet Union in mid-1991: Lord Reagan 1991.

[17] Adverts for the party: ‘Transcom Holidays Party’ 1990; ‘Transcom Party in Yugoslavia!!!’ 1990; travel report: LKJ/Transcom 1990.

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

The Rise and Fall of BBS Culture in Finland, 1982–2002

BBS, communication networks, digital culture, home computers

Petri Saarikoski
petsaari [a] utu.fi
PhD, senior lecturer
Digital Culture, University of Turku

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Saarikoski, Petri. 2020. ”The Rise and Fall of BBS Culture in Finland, 1982–2002”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/the-rise-and-fall-of-bbs-culture-in-finland-1982-2002/

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The purpose of this article is to provide a general picture on the significance of the BBS culture from a computer hobbyist perspective. The study will proceed in chronological order from the early stages in the 1980s to the events of the 1990s and early 2000s. The available data on experiences and memories related to BBSes is survey-based. Interviews and some of the original messages from discussion areas are also used. The data support the earlier observations regarding the diversity of BBS culture. The BBS hobby had its own rules, norms and courses of action, and this could also be seen in the playful, constantly changing use of language in the message areas. The data evokes an image of an entirely new type of hobby that was initially met with a great sense of wonder. The sources also talk about the slowdown period of BBS activity, and reminiscing about it has also brought up comments that refers to information network nostalgia. So far, the history of the BBS culture has not been extensively researched, especially in Finland. Therefore, this article is one of the first academic case studies from this subject.


“BBS systems were a window to the outside world and toward different areas of interest. Often, it was impressive simply to log in, or attempt to log in, to a system.” (Kotikone, M, 1979)

The citation above is from a survey (Kotikone) completed in 2013 that collected memories and experiences concerning the popularization of the home computer hobby in Finland. Many respondents who were born in the 1970s and 1980s brought up the fact that, before the internet broke through at the end of the 1990s, BBS (Bulletin Board System) was the first contact with information networks (Naskali & Silvast 2014, 33–34). In Finland, the BBS hobby was at the height of its popularity around the mid-1990s, and BBS systems have been classified particularly significant as regards the cultural adoption of information networks. (Saarikoski 2004, 380–384; Hirvonen 2010, 3–10). The purpose of this article is to provide a general picture on the significance of the Finnish BBS culture from a computer hobbyist perspective. How were users acquainted with the BBS and what kind of activities did they create around them? What memories and experiences have been associated with this activity?

The study will proceed in chronological order from the early stages in the 1980s to the events in the 1990s and early 2000s. I will focus on the adaption of the hobby, its development and the growth of user base and finally examine the rapid decline of BBSes. I also examine the heritage of BBS culture and its status and significance as a “pre-internet”. This case study is a continuation of the research in which we have looked at the life cycle of Finnish network services of the early 2000s. It appears that the infrastructure of Finnish-originated, Internet-related inventions and innovations, which were not strongly considered national, survived longer than individual local, national, or transnational services (Suominen et al. 2017). Finnish BBS culture was more local than global in nature, and it practically almost disappeared in late 1990s and early 2000s. Was this mainly due to the rise of the global internet? What lessons can we draw from its cultural history?

In Finland the hobbyists knew BBS-systems as “purkit” (pots) or “kannut” (cans). Etymology of these slang words is uncertain, but at least computer magazine Printti used the word “purkki” already in 1985 (Ks. Printti 9/1985). This was because the early version of BBS Vaxi, maintained by Printti, was sometimes called “Honey Pot” (with the picture of Winnie the Pooh), and “honey” referred to manufacturer of their BBS server (Honeywell). Supposedly, the hobbyists adopted this word and developed an alternative version of it (“kannu”) sometimes in early 1990s.

So far, the history of the BBS culture has not been extensively researched, especially in Finland. Out of the Finnish academic research on the topic, Mikko Hirvonen’s master’s thesis from the field of digital culture and his scholarly articles (Hirvonen 2007, 2010, and 2011) as well as the author’s own publications (2004, 2009, 2017) are noteworthy. Internationally, there has been research interest in the United States, BBS systems are also discussed in several national publications concerning the history and local adaptation of the internet and information networks. (E.g. Tobler 1995; Argyle & Shields 1996; Driscoll 2014; Morris 2004; Mailland & Driscoll 2017). BBS is also notified in demoscene research (Reunanen 2017; Silvast & Reunanen 2014).

The same applies to its media visibility: former and current computer hobbyists have written most of the history on BBS systems in Finland (See e.g. Skrolli 3/2014; Skrolli 1/2016). The most important reason for the lack of interest is obvious: the level of interest toward the internet and, later, social media, has marginalized the phenomenon. The second factor is the passage of time: over 20 years have passed since the peak of the BBS era, and the systems were a fairly marginal phenomenon in the eyes of the general public. Nowadays, BBS is a curiosity related to the history of information networks that the younger generation, in particular, has not even heard about. Kevin Driscoll has come up with similar observations. He writes about the forgotten history” of information network culture, which researchers have not been dealing with since the 1990s. (Driscoll 2014, 15-18) For these reasons, this article is a case study, focusing entirely on the general history of BBS culture in Finland.

Questionnaires, interviews, and thematic essays have been typical ways of collecting user experiences related to computing. The Kotikone survey mentioned above is an example of an available body of data. It is a continuation of a survey carried out in 2003 (Tiesu) that collected a more extensive amount of information on the memories related to the history of Finnish computing, the use of computers, and the attitudes toward different phenomena within the field of computing (Aaltonen 2004). The available data on experiences and memories related to BBSes received from both surveys was often short and fragmented. This was the main reason that I started a new survey (Komu), focusing solely on the BBS hobby, in the fall of 2016.[1] The purpose of the survey was to uncover qualitative data on the hobby, and, for this reason, most of the response fields were open. In addition to the basic information, the respondents were asked about the starting points of their hobby, its development, and the details of active use. Stories and memories related to the discussion areas were a dedicated section. At the end, the respondents were asked about their memories related to the final phases of the activity.

During the survey, I also completed interviews and gathered available and archived messages from former BBS systems.[2] The amount of collected messages is vast, containing some 12.000 different messages. At the time of writing, the analysis of this material is still in progress; partly due to this reason, this material will be mostly outside of the scope of this article. Still, I am going to use some of the messages as a supportive material and the preliminary analysis based on them in this study. [3] Messages of the BBS can be difficult to access for research purposes. A significant part of the data is still on the hard drives or floppy disks of private computers. Some may have been permanently lost, mainly because of the technical reasons. The disintegration of data began already in the 1980s and 1990s, when the hard drives were often wiped clean because there was not enough storage space. This problem is internationally well known. For example, Kevin Driscoll has noted that programs and files are quite well archived on the Internet, but messages and written text documents – especially from private BBSes – are often hard to find (Driscoll 2014, 22–24). Still, at least some message archives from Fidonet-network are available from Usenet-discussion groups, maintained by Google Groups.

Examining the messages specific research ethics plays an especially significant role. Researchers have also started to pay more attention to the issue in Finland. (Östman & Turtiainen 2016) First, BBS-messages were really not meant to be public and as sources they can be classified as private correspondence. Second, messages were usually written by adolescent hobbyists. Third, most of hobbyists still use the same nickname, so messages can still be linked to a particular user. Therefore, researches must be extra careful when using these messages as sources. At least the nicknames have to be anonymized and certain sensitive issues must be left outside of the research focus, or they must be referred in a very general way. As a method for analyzing the BBS discussions, I have taken advantage of empathic reading of the material (Järvinen-Tassopoulos 2011). In this way, I can protect the writers from any unfavorable publicity, and still concentrate on my original research focus.

Previously, I have interviewed the well-known system operators of large BBSes: Seppo Uusitupa (CBBS Helsinki), Teppo Oranne (Metropoli), Hannu Strang (Vaxi), and Jukka O. Kauppinen (MBnet, Neuvosto-Savo). In order to balance this, I have selected for this article one interview (Jenni Ikävalko) that both provides information on the lifecycle of a smaller BBS (BBS Atom Heart Mother and BBS Kukkaniittu) and describes the role of the female in a male-dominated hobbyist community. As regards theory, I am drawing on research that discusses the stages of cultural adoption of information networks and the cultural history of the computing hobby on a more general level. Especially I will use research done in academic field of digital culture (e.g. Saarikoski 2004; Saarikoski et al 2009; Suominen 2013).

There is a risk that the research will only confirm the information that has been brought up earlier and, unwillingly, create a nostalgic halo around the phenomenon. There is also large potential for errors in interpretation as well as factual errors. The researcher must analyze the responses with critical accuracy and be well aware of the general history of the BBS culture. This problem is very well known within the field of computing history research, and it poses additional challenges, in particular, for researchers who lack personal experience in the phenomenon being studied. On the other hand, the collection of survey data may be justified by a second obvious purpose: the survey allowed for reaching the old modem hobbyists and creating a basis for more extensive research. The second justification was the obvious scarcity of surveys that solely focus on BBS activities, especially in Finland.

Adoption of the Hobby

“Experiences and culture from the BBS era, which predated the internet, should be collected. The systems have already disappeared and the people will soon be suffering from dementia.”
(Kotikone, M, 1974)

The enclosed response is very descriptive of the developing age profile of the former modem enthusiasts, which can also be seen in the Komu survey from the fall of 2016. Most of the respondents were over 40 years old or approaching this age. The largest group (79%) consisted of people born between 1973 and 1980, who mostly had their first contact with BBS systems in the 1990s. This result is well aligned with the studies on 1990s BBS history, which state that the height of popularity was in the mid-1990s (Hirvonen 2010; Saarikoski 2004).

Figure 1. Age range and distribution for the hobbyists. The oldest respondent was 59 years old, the youngest was 31. There were a total of 124 respondents. The references are coded this way: 1) acronym of the survey, 2) sex (if mentioned), 3) year of birth and 4) answer order.

Males made up most of the respondents (94.4%), and many of them (38 respondents) had lived in the Helsinki region (Helsinki is the capital of Finland, and the region also includes big cities like Espoo and Vantaa) during their BBS hobby. The respondents were highly educated and a large number of them worked in the IT sector. The respondents born between 1957 and 1972 (24 people) formed a separate group that had had their first contact with BBSes in the 1980s. Respondents born in 1973 or thereafter mostly stated that their first BBS experiences took place in the 1990s. What was this group’s first contact with BBSes like and how did they define their activities?

The generally accepted understanding is that BBS activities in Finland started in the summer of 1982, when Seppo Uusitupa’s CBBS Helsinki was connected to the telephone network (Prosessori 6-7/1982; Uusitupa 1993). The significance of this event may even have been overemphasized in studies and memoirs (Interview: Seppo Uusitupa October 22, 2001 and August 25, 2007. See also Saarikoski et al 2009, 50). On the other hand, this is the earliest known example of an experiment that brought the BBS-hobby to Finland from the United States, where it had started in 1978 (Driscoll 2014; BBS The Documentary Part 1/8: Baud). The history of Finnish information networks had started with the installation of the first commercial modems in 1964, but until the mid-1990s, the government and private sector mainly maintained basic services. There was never any serious attempt to create an ambitious national information network, like the French Minitel, although some projects were launched under the umbrella of information society programs. (Saarikoski et al. 2009, 27, 44–51. See also Mailland & Driscoll 2017) Therefore, BBS hobbyists can be classified as “early adopters” of modems in private use.

Still, Finland had a fairly large number of BBS systems per capita at the end of the 1980s (about 150 systems in total) (Saarikoski 2004, 161). Finnish BBS culture developed in the field of operation of certain telephone companies. One of the main reasons for this was the costly long-distance charges. This is also the main reason why most of the BBSes were located in big cities (like Helsinki, Vantaa, Espoo, Turku and Tampere). This was also the case in other European countries (Rheingold 1993; Mailland & Driscoll 2017). According to earlier research, between 1982 and 1985, a large part of the hobbyists were men over 20 years old who either worked for the telephone companies or in the IT business or studied these subjects. Many early BBSes were run by companies in this field, or associations and clubs associated with them (Saarikoski 2004, 39, 41, 44–45). This gradually spread the modem hobby to computer clubs and educational institutions. The phenomenon was widely popularized by the computing press. According to the survey, individual first contacts with BBSes were already made in 1982–1983. But 78% of the “early adopters” date the events “at the end of the 1980s”.

“In 1985. After upper secondary school ended, I was working in my first job in the IT business, and my employer at that time became interested in the possibilities of BBSes for marketing and communications” (Komu, M, 1966 [I])

“I met Jussi Pulkkinen (Sysop for SuoKUG BBS) when doing other business. This may have been in ’83 or ’84. […] This activity was very rare and exotic, and only those who were interested in computers were involved in it.” (Komu, M, 1957)

The responses also show that new technology was exciting and people actively studied it during their free time. It is important to note that the respondents emphasized the significance of BBS use as a tool for expertise and networking. The viewpoints concerning the professionalism that the early adopters brought up are fairly common in the history of computing. On the other hand, the playful and experimental nature of the activities could be seen in the mentions concerning early hacking attempts, where young people had accessed online systems without authorization and set traps for the other users (Komu, M, 1967 [I]. See also Suominen 1997; Saarikoski et al. 2009, 55–56).

The role of BBSes as an exclusive hobby for experts and professionals started to gradually change toward the end of the 1980s. A period of rapid internationalization also started. Based on the data, the popularization of the BBS was significantly affected by the BBS Vaxi (1985–1991) maintained by Printti computer magazine. Vaxi was obviously the most popular BBS in 1980s, gathering several thousand subscribers yearly. (Saarikoski et al 2009, 52–54; Interview: Hannu Strang 11.2.2002). Of course, the professional computer press and club magazines (Prosessori 6-7/1982; Vikki 8/1983) had already covered modems, but the introduction of the home computing press significantly broadened their target audience (MikroBitti 11/1985; 5/1986. See also Saarikoski et al. 2009, 57). According to the responses, many early experiments were made on the Commodore 64, the most popular home computer of its time.

“I was reading Printti magazine, published by A-Lehdet, and walked into HPY’s office in order to rent my first 300 bps modem that I connected to a Commodore 64” (Komu, F, 1967 [II])

The response is also indicative of the practical difficulties that new hobbyists encountered. A modem was an expensive piece of hardware. The telephone companies supported hobbyists to an extent, particularly through the computer clubs. The responses include memories related to experimentation with the first modems.

“You called a BBS by using a landline phone: you dialed in the number and listened for the carrier tone. After this, you pressed a button on the modem that took over the line and connected to the remote system.” (Komu, M, 1970, [V])

Nokia modem  VB 312
Picture 1. Nokia started to manufacture modems in the late 1980s. In the picture, VB 312 -modem from 1987, which supported dual speed mode (300 b/s and 1200 b/s). VB 312 was advertised with a slogan ”For hackers and other professionals”. (MikroBitti 4/1987).
Source: Salo Museum of Electronics.

Many young hobbyists first encountered BBSes through a friend or acquaintance before purchasing a modem for their own use.

“The first time I witnessed using a BBS was at a friend’s house in the fall of 1987. His father worked at the local telephone company. [-] We visited some discussion boards, but I have no other memories. It all felt very futuristic – information networks, I mean. Full-on science fiction.” (Komu, M, 1972 [I])

The early experiments in the 1980s were often random by nature. The memories are often vague, and the above response describes this very well. The younger generation, in particular, experimented with BBSes in the late 1980s and only actively started the hobby in the early 1990s.

“In 1988, my father had bought a PC with a 1,200 baud card modem. We used it a few times, mainly to call BBSes that were listed in the magazines (I can remember at least two by name: Kopel Fido and JKL Fido). Both of us were mostly interested in BBSes as sources of files, and my access to the modem was very limited at the time.” (Komu, M, 1977, [I])

The response refers to the Amstrad PC model, introduced in 1987, that had a built-in 1,200 baud card modem. This computer model is an interesting byway in the development that preceded the hobbyist adoption of PC computers, previously intended for professional use. The turn of the 1990s can also be seen in the data as an increase in the significance of the Amiga computer. In Finland, the Amiga 500 model that was introduced as a continuation of the Commodore 64 started gaining popularity in the late 1980s. Based on the responses, the Amiga was fairly commonly used alongside the PC in the BBS circles of the 1990s. During these years, the Amiga was very popular in other European countries too. For example, in both the UK and Germany about 1.5 million were sold, and sales reached hundreds of thousands in other European nations. (e.g. Reunanen 2014; Bagnall 2005; Knight 2018).

“[In 1990, I purchased] an Amiga 500 computer that many of my friends already had. Two of them also had modems that we used to call several BBSes. The ones I remember the clearest are Neuvosto-Savo and Metropoli. There were others, of course, but these were the most popular ones.” (Komu, M, 1972 [IV])

Chanting and Leeching

In the BBS circles, discussions and messaging can be considered the foundations of the hobby from the 1980s onwards. They can be divided into three parts: private messages, chats between two or more people and the actual messages on the discussion boards. File transfers and games, for example, became more important later in the 1990s (Naskali & Silvast 2014). In this respect, the Finnish BBS culture did not differ much in international comparison. (e.g Driscoll 2014, 164–165; Tobler 1995). Many of the terms used in the discussions were English-based, but some of them were only used in Finland. In some cases, hobbyists were known as “kusoilijat”, which was a reference to code QSO (more commonly referred to as simply a “contact”) used by radio amateurs. Still, in Finnish BBS culture the most common slang word for online discussions were “messuilut” (eng. “chants”), and therefore hobbyists were usually called “messuilijat” (eng. “chanters”).[4] This is an example of a slang word which is not used anyone.

“The discussion boards were so full of inside jokes that outsiders were unavoidably left out. However, I have a lot of memories of threads that made me laugh out loud (at least during a suitable sugar rush).” (Koku, M, 1975 [I])

The popular BBSes, in particular, were often full and required constant queuing. Furthermore, different time limits significantly slowed down their use. The technology in use and the high cost of telephone calls also affected the nature of the discussions, in particular at the early stages. Therefore, discussions were a combination of synchronous and asynchronous messaging. The habit of downloading all of the messages at once became more common in the 1990s. The messages were only read once the connection had been closed, and the users wrote their messages offline and uploaded them during the next connection. So-called offline reader software was used for reading and writing messages; the most popular message package format used was QWK. This reader format, originally developed in 1987, was especially popular among the users of Fidonet. The other, also internationally well-known reader format was BlueWave. (Hargadon 2011, 70-71; Driscoll 2014, 224; “What are QWK and BlueWave?”, alt.usenet.offline-reader 2014). There are plenty of references to its use in research data, especially in the 1990s, when material originally published on the internet was transferred to BBSes running on PC and Amiga home computers.

“Since phone calls were fairly expensive, I only spent about an hour a day online; however, reading and replying to the QWK packages could take up to 6 hours or even entire days, if a serious debate was in progress and I had to go to the library or consult my own bookshelves in order to look for facts.” (Komu, M, 1970, [IV])

Picture 2. Main menu of BBS Metropoli (c. 1993). Scandinavian letters (like Ä and Ö) are not working and instead system is placing them with characters | and [.To improve readability, the users are instructed to use letters A and O instead. On the last line, the system is asking the user’s name, a mandatory task before he or she could proceed.

The data contains mentions of hundreds of different BBSes that the respondents had used. The most mentions went to MBnet (49 pcs), Vaxi (31 pcs), Metropoli (15 pcs), Pelit-BBS (9 pcs), Neuvosto-Savo (7 pcs), and Amiga Zone (6 pcs). The reasons for this emphasis are undoubtedly that these BBSes were also among the most popular ones (Saarikoski 2004, 380–381). Otherwise, the data contains plenty of individual mentions of BBSes. The names that hobbyists invented for their BBSes make for fascinating reading and indicate an in-depth knowledge of fantasy and horror literature, or were otherwise quite innovative: Shadow Gate, Shoggoth’s Nest/Protoplasma, Dragon’s Nest, Chicken’s World, Snowfall, Gaia, Underworld Fortress, and Turbohyttynen (translated as “Turbomosquito”, a clear reference to whimpering sound of a modem).

Picture 3. Main menu of BBS BCG-Box. “Yleiset komennot” (main commands) were usually a combination of Finnish and English. For example, <COM>: send message to Sysop, <CHAT>: real time discussion tool, <WHO>, who is online and <G> quit and go offline. Source: Ville-Matias Heikkilä / Skrolli.

The data supports the earlier observations concerning the important role of the message and discussion areas in BBSes (Hirvonen 2010, 24). Based on word searches, 54% of the respondents emphasized the importance of message and discussion areas. On the other hand, the responses also indicate how the hobbyists’ interests started to diverge during the first half of the 1990s the latest. 58% of all the respondents emphasized that files were the primary motive for calling BBSes. Out of the other available activities, only 15% of the responses emphasized the importance of online games. However, for some users, participating in the discussions was not at all important or they have no memories of it. Active participation in the discussions was widely respected, and BBS system operators commonly requested it. Simply downloading files without much message activity (so called “leeching”) was even frowned upon, and Sysops limited passive users’ access to the file areas. These rules were usually written on the index-pages of BBSes. (Kauppinen 2008, www.byterapers.scene.org). Based on the data, downloading files was especially popular among respondents born in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Therefore, it is interesting to note that the responses discuss software piracy in a fairly indirect manner. “Beautiful warez memories of downloading games all night with the modem.” (Komu, M, 1978 [VII])

The term “piracy” is only directly used in four responses. As a social activity, piracy in the BBS world was a significant shift from the earlier means of copying and trading software that made use of letter correspondence and meet-ups in person. Copies of commercial software could spread quickly from one BBS to another inside Finland, and as international connections developed, international software trading also started to increase. In countries like United States BBS-piracy was already common in early 1980s. (Sterling 1993, 84; Bennahum 1998, 3–6, 82–84). This kind of activity first emerged in Finnish BBSes during the late 1980s, and the activity was already well established in the early 1990s. It is noteworthy that, at this time, the Finnish police first became interested and the first seizure of a pirate BBS happened in 1991 (Saarikoski 2004, 329–332). Based on previous research, copies of commercial software – games in particular – were commonly distributed in the BBS world, but there were specific rules and limitations concerning their availability (Saarikoski 2017; Reunanen 2014). The same limitations also concerned the downloading of files in general, regardless of whether they were games, music files, comics, online novels or pornographic images.

However, Mikko Hirvonen has argued in his own study that the division between discussion-oriented BBSes and software-oriented BBSes was artificial, since practically all BBSes engaged in both activities (Hirvonen 2010, 26-27). Software was a type of added value related to the operation of the BBSes. The same BBSs that hosted illegal games were also a platform for active discussions. Similar observations have also emerged in studies on the pirate scene (Reunanen, Wasiak & Botz 2015). Software trading (simply known as “treidaus”) was an important factor regulating file downloads; if you downloaded files from the BBS, you also had to upload new ones. This is generally referred to as the upload/download ratio (or u/d ratio). Later on, this was also a common solution for FTP sites on the internet, but in BBSes, it was more common for the downloaders and the system operator to know each other. Files were commonly zipped, or archived in order to save space, and appended with all of the necessary information.

“Upload/download ratios, zipping all files and including the file_id.diz inside the package, checking in advance that the same file is not already available, and saying hi to the Sysop during your first call to a new BBS.” (Komu, M, 1978 [IV])

In many BBSes, pirated software and piracy in general were nearly taboo subjects, and even talking about them was forbidden. For example, the rules of the BBS could state that “Discussions on piracy, copying or cracking are NOT allowed.” (Komu, M, 1977 [III]) In commercial BBSes, such as MBnet maintained by the MikroBitti magazine, it was natural for the rules on piracy to be strict, but the data does not clearly indicate why piracy gave rise to censorship even in hobbyist BBSes. One potential reason might be the profiling of BBSes; certain systems wanted to develop according to a specific set of rules and norms. According to my personal interpretation, as well as previous research, software piracy was – at least partly – considered “mass culture”; it attracted a large number of young, fairly inexperienced users who concentrated on downloading software and were, in a way, also seen as a nuisance.

“The BBSes that you used for downloading files were a different category. They did not invoke a personal relationship. However, the other BBSes created a rather lively, small social world where members got together during meet-ups.” (Komu, M, 1979 [IV])

“In a way, we made fun of the trading culture. It was sort of a counter-reaction to it. It was a time of elitism; we were young and unconditional, as you often are at that age.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

The attitudes toward pirated software, in particular, divided the computer hobbyists, and emotional discussions on the topic could be seen even in the mail columns of computer game magazines (Saarikoski 2012). In this respect, the BBS piracy of the 1990s was more of an insider activity that had fairly little to do with the current anonymous online file sharing culture (Saarikoski 2004, 331–333).

BBSes were considered to be important electronic meeting points where visitors were expected to interact. When user logged in he or she was supposed to give their full name to Sysop (if calling for the first time) and use that name as a sign of identification, or use a handle (nick name) instead. The most active BBSes could receive thousands of connections per month (Kauppinen 2008). A wide selection of experiences and memories is available concerning the rapid spread and increase in popularity of the 1990s BBS hobby, which lasted until around 1996. The first contact was made at their place of residence, where the hobbyists spent their childhood and youth. Users read about BBSes in computer magazines, then learned about the hobby from their friends and, later, decided to join in themselves. Nearly systematically, the stories bring up the effect of friends, which is also linked to the need for social networking.

“Social interaction and the exchange of information, games, etc. were the most important. The BBS physically bound me to people in my home region; it created virtual groups of friends.” (Komu, M, 1978 [V])

The other feature is that the hobbyists have met on a BBS first and then face to face.

“Finally, the system (Atom Heart Mother, later Kukkaniittu) came to life in December; before that, I had been compiling a group of friends. Some were from the Kuopio scene, and some from Helsinki. The first time we met at a party with a larger crowd was in December ’95.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

The networking occurred between young people living in the same town or neighborhood; later on, contacts were sought from elsewhere in Finland as well as from abroad. The BBSes had a clearly socializing role when young teenagers were looking for a reference group they could not find at school, for example. Jenni Ikävalko, the Sysop of BBS Atom Heart Mother[5] and BBS Kukkaniittu[6], who started her familiarization with BBSes at the age of 14, has provided an apt description of this stage:

“My interests were completely different from those of my peers at school. For example, I was interested in sci-fi and already liked Star Trek and games back then. […] I thought it would be nice to have a place where you could talk and write about sci-fi, exchange short stories, and do other fun things.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

Another emerging characteristic is that networking and finding “similarly minded” friends was a nice surprise for many hobbyists.

“My circle of friends included a lot of people who were interested in computers, so we also used BBSes quite a lot. Most of my friends used BBSes at some point, at least.” (Komu, M, 1975, [II])

“In my circle of friends, this was quite common, since some people had joined our circle from the BBS scene. Of course, they were not in the mainstream; just something a small group of nerds did.” (Komu, M, 1977 [VI])

“A lot; nearly my entire circle of friends outside of school consisted of BBS users.” (Komu, 1980, [X])

The data also contains mentions of long, ongoing friendships that started from the BBS hobby.

“Many of my acquaintances, who work in different fields, are people who I originally met in BBSes.” (Komu, M, 1978, [XI])

“When I became acquainted with the BBS scene, I was a teenager with absolutely no technical knowledge. Through MBnet, I met dozens of new people, and we used to meet up in the Helsinki region and at the Assembly festivals.” (Komu, M, 1982 [VI])

Of course, setting up your own BBS and acting as its Sysop was considered to be the pinnacle of the hobby. Out of the respondents, 48 reported that they were the Sysop or co-Sysop of a BBS. The most commonly mentioned BBS software were the Finnish SuperBBS and BBBBS and the American PCBoard. The lifetime of hobbyist BBSes could vary from a few months to several years; sometimes, the BBS was kept online for up to ten years. The core community within one BBS could be fairly small:

“The core group, I believe, was around ten people. And then there were about twenty or thirty who sort of hung around. There were also lots of callers who only called once or twice.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

At the start of the 1990s, the average age of the users had fallen clearly below twenty years. In this way, discussion areas of BBSes worked as virtual youth clubs. Discussions were moved to specific areas, named by Sysops or co-Sysops. Usually naming policy varied greatly, but there were some common themes. For example “pelit” (games), “skene” (demoscene), “ohjelmointi” (programming), “viihde ja media” (entertainment and media), “koneet” (hardware) and “myytävänä” (“for sale”). Typical problem in discussion areas were that messages started to go “off topic” if Sysop did not modify the thread or was otherwise passive. Therefore, the most common (and usually the most popular) areas were simply classified as “sekalaista” (miscellaneous messages). Often, in these areas the conversation was often quite unrestricted and even confusing, because treads were filled with insider jokes and meta-text (discussions referring to some other discussions or events somewhere else). It was typical that these kind of areas were humorously named “kiipunkakkaa” or “paskanjauhanta” (roughly translated as “cesspool” or “bullshit talk”). Many of these messages contained foul languages and usually “cesspools” were the birthplaces for flame wars and trolling. Sometimes tangled discussion threads aroused frustration:

U1>These chants belong to everyone, so you don’t have to read, just press enter if you are not interested.

U2> Yeah, sure… but this really start to piss me off when 60% of these chants are just shoddy bullshit and nothing serious. Yeah, THINK ABOUT IT. (BBS Atom Heart Mother 14.2.1996)

Furthermore, sources indicate that majority of discussions can be classified as “social interaction”; young people talked about any matter related to their daily lives. The social nature of the BBS hobby could also be concretely seen in the formation of different free-form communities. For many, hanging around BBSes was an important way of spending time that bound like-minded people together and offered young people the chance to meet each other in an unofficial or even entertaining setting.

“BBSes were not a separate hobby. It was a large part of my life in my teens. It connected with everything else that happened back then, such as alcohol, house parties, meeting girls (or dreaming about them!) and the rest of the “weekend culture”. We often started Friday nights at my friend’s house. We would talk about BBSes and “go online” while drinking cheap white wine or something like that and listening to music or the radio.” (Komu, M, 1978 [VI])

The data contains a number of other similar memories, even though the details provided are often scarce. Still, sources contain reports from different parties and meetings, and discussion threads include references to the use of alcohol.

Despite this, the hobbyists used discussion areas to handle serious issues. For example, BBSes were important channels for peer support, and discussion areas contains lots of material where users shared their fears and frustrations:

U1> How in hell I can get so awful result from the math test? b, just b. I’ve never got such a bad result :( All this happened because I accidently read the wrong chapter. Oh, dear… I’m so depressed. Well, luckily it’s time to get some sleep (BBS Atom Heart Mother 7.2.1996)

If someone was sad and depressed, other users could quickly respond: “I hope we can give you some support when you come to meeting today.” (BBS Kukkaniittu 18.6.1999). There are also very serious stories present. For example, one high school student reported that his mate from school had been killed in car accident. He had just come home feeling very confused and shocked. Other users immediately began to give him crisis support via discussion area. (BBS Kukkaniittu 1.10.1997)

The hobbyist groups were male-dominated, and the girls who joined the activities would sometimes gather attention. The women who responded to the survey (8 people) apparently did not consider the gender question to be problematic, and the girls who were accepted into the groups were – at least for the most part – treated in an equal manner. Jenni Ikävalko has stated in an interview that, sometimes, the other users could not believe that she was a girl and suspected that she might be a “fake” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko September 15, 2016). The attitudes could have been influenced by a case that shook the BBS world in the late 1990s where a boy had used a girl’s name, and assumed the role of a girl in discussion boards. This case was infamous and is still remember as a classic example of “role trolling”. This incident also indicates that real names or handles were almost always used in BBSes and fake names were frowned upon. This was also a sign that usually anonymous discussions were not allowed by the Sysops or they were discouraged. (Hirvonen 2010, 90). There are several international comparisons to make. Researchers have pointed out that users had a tendency for this kind of role-playing and if you even changed your gender role, this was usually a very effective, though risky behavior (Baym 1998, 13–15; Blanchard & Horan 1998, 293–307).

From Playful Arguments to Trolling

In the 1990s, as the number of users grew significantly and the average age fell, arguments between users also became more common. Earlier research and interviews have brought up that, in the 1990s, “BBSes became kindergartens” (Saarikoski 2004; Interview: Teppo Oranne, February 6, 2002). The fights, arguments, flaming, and trolling were also familiar phenomena on the BBS side; on the other hand, as the interaction between BBSes and the internet increased from the mid-1990s onward, the arguments also spread from one system to another. In the interviews and surveys, former hobbyists have stressed that flaming and trolling was more common on the internet. This is not necessarily entirely true.

Research suggests that arguments and flame wars were a normal phenomenon related to the popularization of the computer hobby that had already started in the 1980s. Respondents have simple forgotten many negative phenomena related to BBS-hobby. (Saarikoski & Reunanen 2014; Hirvonen 2010, 86–87; Saarikoski 2017). In the survey, 75 respondents indicated that they had encountered the phenomenon in one form or another. 38 respondents stated that there were no arguments or that there were “very few” of them.

“Sometimes, the arguments would be very fierce. Those who were most critical in arguments and questioned everything were not generally very well liked.” (Komu, M, 1979 [XII])

“You would constantly see arguments and attempts to determine the pecking order, although this would occur less in BBSes where you had a stronger inner circle and feeling of community. I was fairly active at trolling beginners or people who appeared too formal/conservative; I would use sarcasm, for example.” (Komu, M, 1977 [I])

The existence of different distractions is undeniable, but the attitude toward them seems to indicate a generation gap – for example, older and more experienced users often found that younger users’ behavior was tasteless. The arguments also included a degree of playfulness that outsiders could not always understand.

“There was always some flaming, and trolls as well. When I started the hobby, it took a while to understand their deeper meaning. Many scientific discussions could be led astray, and users who approached the matter in a less logical way often encountered such a degree of hostility that moderators were definitely required.” (Komu, M, 1976 [V])

The role of the Sysop was to act like a referee. If arguments started go beyond certain boundaries, the Sysop could write a warning message to calm down participants. “Stop that bullying right now! It’s not fair, because at least I want to read his chants on my BBS and it’s not nice if you drive him out!” (BBS Kukkaniittu 22.4.1998)

The term “flaming” was clearly imported from Usenet (See more e.g. ”The Jargon File, version 4.4.7”, Usenet), and was far more common than “trolling” in the Finnish BBS-scene. According to my observations, “trolling” become more common as late as 1997. The survey data supports the understanding that, in particular, language that could be classified as flaming was fairly common, but overly provocative arguments were effectively controlled by the principles and rules that the hobbyists had assumed. In concrete terms, this meant that if a hobbyist wanted to be part of a community, they had to act according to its norms. On the other hand, cursing and usage of foul language was also very common.

Furthermore, the majority of off-topic discussions included some sort of teasing. For example, in September 1997, the users of BBS Kukkaniittu had a lively discussion about different music tastes. When one user listed dozens of heavy metal bands among his favorites, his friend said cleverly: “Well, buddy. You are one true HeAVy MeTAL MaNIAc!! :P”. The other user replied quickly: “I listen to some mod and chip music too. Amiga stuff is pretty cool”. His friend continued: “Oh, yeah? What kind of mods? DanCE eUrO PoP? |-(:Θ)”. This kind of writing also show typical linguistic play, and the use of emoticons is was also a good example of how international influences spread from internet to BBS. In Finland, emoticons were apparently introduced in early 1985, three years after they were first used in Usenet. (Fitzpatrick 2003; Saarikoski et al 2009, 218–219).

BBS Kukkaniittu
Picture 4. Example of a discussion thread from BBS Kukkaniittu (24.9.1997). You can see the usage of “chants”-word (“messut”) which was basically the synonym of “discussions”. Area is a new one so users ponder how the discussions should go on, what kind of rules you should follow, and then the Sysop writes: “Rules of Laudat-discussion area are: 1. Do not use capital letters, 2. Do not write flaming messages about Windows, Quake and do not criticize me. If you do not follow these rules: 1. I will first give you a private warning message, 2. then I will give you a public warning, and 3. finally (if even this doesn´t work) I will tell your mommy”.

BBS administrators, or Sysops (sometimes helped by co-Sysops), could easily remove, or ban, a troublemaking user from the BBS. However, it was far more common for the Sysops to moderate the discussion threads. The most typical target for slander and sarcasm was a young, inexperienced hobbyist who would be “asking stupid questions” on the discussion boards. Another typical scenario was one where someone was being “too smart” and aggressively questioning the views presented by others.

Usually in computer subcultures, users were divided into “outsiders” and “insiders”. Subcultures were often very competitive, which is marked by the distinction between “elites” and “lamers”, actively used in subcultures like the demoscene (Reunanen 2017; Reunanen & Silvast 2009). Archived messages from BBSes are literally filled with this kind of discussions. Synonyms for lamer were “laama” (lama) and “luuseri” (loser) which were also frequently used. Normally, if you were a new user and you were not familiar with the rules of BBSes, there was a good chance that older users labeled you as a “lamer”. The growing number of hobbyists online also fueled this kind of behavior. For example, computer magazine MikroBitti had launched the subscribers’ MBnet service in 1994 and the BBS had become very popular, gathering thousands of new users. In February 1995 – only a few months after the opening of the MBnet – the userbase had already reached 5000. At the end of the year, the number had increased to 15,000 users. At the top of its popularity in the late 1990s, the service had over 32,000 registered users. While operating at full capacity, the service had 250 nodes in use. (Ruhanen 2002, bittivuoto.net; Hirvonen 2010)

Older hobbyists constantly mocked the new and usually inexperienced users of MBnet. In some BBSes there where even discussion areas where this kind of activity was very common. One good example is from BBS Atom Heart Mother, where one area was simply named “fukken lamerz” (fucking lamers).

U1> “Some lamers from MBnet are sending me messages and asking “how have you created that fucking awesome ansi-animation??” Pah, just stupid” (BBS Atom Heart Mother 27.6.1997)

One interesting, national feature was the usage of term “peelo”, which became common from 1995 onwards. Based on some sources (PeeloFAQ 1998; Pelupaketti 2008), the term emerged in Freenet Finland during 1995. Freenet was a state-funded internet service aimed at teachers, schoolchildren and their parents. The operating model was mainly copied from the USA and Canada. In both countries, a large number of free services (Free-Net) was created alongside commercial services for various communities (Järvinen 1994). Some educational professionals were remarkably active online. One of them (with a user account “peelo”) had written long and critical comments on the grammar errors of certain discussions, but being apparently inexperienced as a computer user, his own writings were full of errors and technically weird formatting. Other users were very annoyed by this kind of behavior. BBS users quickly adopted the term, even though its original meaning was blurred and partly forgotten. At the same time, it was adapted in IRC channels, too. Typically, “peelo” was used to mock users who wrote most of their text in capital, added many exclamation marks, emoticons or used a lot of color in text. This kind of behavior broke several unwritten rules and it was classified as “stupid shouting”. For example, if your starting line was “IT WAS VERY VERY NICE TO CALL HERE… jAm!!! jAm!!”, Sysop could sarcastically comment: “NICE TO HAVE YOU HERE!!!!!!!!!!!! PEEELOOO!!!” (BBS Atom Heart Mother 25.6.1996)

Sometimes hobbyists took still pictures or copied texts as an evidence of “lame activity” and posted them to certain discussion areas. This kind of evidence was called “lame capture”. Discussion areas devoted to this kind of mocking can be clearly today compared to certain discussion groups of social media, where still pictures of humorous, annoying or otherwise “stupid” activity is presented as a joke for others.

Angry discussions emerged also when hobbyists thought that certain Sysops had “too strict” moderation policy. For example, discussion areas of MBnet were constantly monitored by moderators, which were called “sheriffs”. The task was mainly voluntary, so the only benefit the “sheriffs” got was the opportunity to use the biggest BBS system of that time. The magazine did not allow discussions that had any connection with the illegal activities (normally this meant the distribution of pirated software or mp3-audio files). “Sheriffs” also easily moderated discussions if foul language or ongoing flame wars were discovered, and users were frequently kicked out of MBnet. “Banning” (the termination of access rights for a fixed period) was a very effective weapon, because every user had only one hour usage time per day. Many hobbyists were accustomed to flaming discussions and some of them were very critical of “censorship policy” maintained by sheriffs. (Saarikoski 2017)

However, Sysops usually understood that some sort of control was indispensable: “Of course, they want you to behave nicely, and they have the power to draw the limits!! Remember that!” (BBS Kukkaniittu 26.11.1997) Jouni Heikniemi, who worked as “sheriff” for MBnet, remembers that some of the discussions were very naïve and vulgar. Their job was to intervene if the discussions went too personal. (HS 2.2.2017) According to my observations, the term “cybersheriff” was sometimes used in other countries too. In any case, studies refer to the fact that there was a clear need for these official or semi-official moderators (Dean 1997; Post 1995). “Cybersheriff” is a fitting reference to the mythic American West, and how information networks were seen as the new “Electronic Frontier” by writers like Howard Rheingold (e.g Rheingold 1993; McLure 2000).

Although the respondents have tried to downplay the flaming arguments and the effects of sarcastic language, BBSes were sometimes also home to actual bullying, which undoubtedly hurt several younger users. The use of the offensive language was just one way of action. Identity thefts, message flooding and deliberate release of computer viruses were common and often effective methods of bullying. (Saarikoski 2004, 381; Saarikoski 2017).

The user could have been mocked by just what computer or hardware he or she was using. The arguments between Amiga and PC users over the superiority of their computers’ technology received a lot of attention. These arguments, also known as the machine wars or computer wars, had started already in the 1980s and transferred into the BBS world from the letter columns in magazines and circles of friends (Saarikoski & Reunanen 2014). Significant changes in hardware ownership also affected the arguments. Low-cost PCs had filled the home computer market after the early 1990s, and statistically speaking, the PC was the most common home computer by 1994 the latest (Suominen, Silvast & Harviainen 2018). Correspondingly, the Amiga lost its share of the home computer market during the latter half of the 1990s, in particular. Based on the survey data, however, the machine wars were significantly toned down by the fact that Amiga and PC users often frequented different BBSes (Saarikoski & Reunanen 2014).

Coexistence of Network Systems and the Final Period

By comparing the data to the statistics concerning the topic and other research material, one can clearly see how in Finland the number of online BBSes grew and, at the same time, the hobby started to divide into dozens and hundreds of different communities. A relatively good overall picture can be gained by looking at the list files that gathered basic information on BBSes, such as their contact information and the services available (Figure 2). The peak years of BBS activity were 1995 and 1996. When looking at the numbers, we should take into account that the survey data includes plenty of mentions of BBSes that are not on these lists. This absence is due to the fact that Finland had a lot of BBSes that had a relatively short life cycle and some that were only available during a specific time of day. One can only try to guess the number of such BBSes, but it is very likely that they do not cause a major deviation in terms of the statistics. The heavy expansion of the hobby was also noticed by the commercial sector. For example, the computer game magazine Pelit started its own BBS in 1993, and the computer magazine MikroBitti launched its MBnet service, mentioned in the previous section, in 1994 (Interview, Jukka O. Kauppinen August 13, 1999; Ruhanen 2002, bittivuoto.net; Hirvonen 2010).

 Statistics on the total number of 24h BBSes in Finland based on the BBS lists.
Figure 2. Statistics on the total number of 24h BBSes in Finland based on the BBS lists. It clearly shows the rising trend that continued until around 1996 and the dramatic collapse in the latter part of the 1990s. Source: “Elektroniset 24h postilaatikot Suomessa” (Electronic 24h BBSes in Finland) (1990–2004).

Earlier research may have been a bit too quick to conclude that Finnish BBS activities developed mainly on computer hobbyists’ terms. The most stereotypical view is to classify the entire BBS culture as an activity for “nerds” (Saarikoski 2004; Driscoll 2014). The people who have been the most vocal in presenting their memories on the subject have been very active computer hobbyists. As shown above, the survey data seems to support, at least in part, the generalizing narrative of BBSes as the realm of small “geek circles” and technology enthusiasts and, therefore, creates interpretations that are at least partially disconnected from the reality of the BBS field.

BBS lists and other documents suggest that, in the 1990s in particular, there was a wide variety of users who frequented BBSes. In addition to those interested in computing, BBSes also attracted movie enthusiasts, role-players, fans of science fiction and fantasy literature, demoscene activists, music consumers, electronics hobbyists, and computer gamers. It should also be emphasized that BBSes offered a very effective social platform for representatives of different minorities, who were very active to take advantage of this opportunity. For sexual minorities, for example, BBSes were a fairly useful networking tool. Seta ry (LGBTI Rights in Finland) operated a BBS in the 1990s and later moved its activities to the internet. The presence of subcultures and marginal groups proves that BBSes were by no means solely a realm of active and highly competent computer hobbyists (Saarikoski et al. 2009, 102–104; Böök 1989). In this context, it is noteworthy that internationally HIV/AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s made up a significant cohort of early computer network users who used Bulletin Board Systems (McKinney 2018).

Tomi Jaskari (chairman of the Finnish Amiga Users Group) in front of BBS Amiga Zone (June 1993).
Picture 5. Tomi Jaskari (chairman of the Finnish Amiga Users Group) in front of BBS Amiga Zone (June 1993). Picture: Esa Heikkinen.

During the 1990s, the connections between the internet and BBS systems started to tighten, and in practical terms, they coexisted for several years. It is indicative of this that research concerning the global information network culture of the 1990s practically views BBSes as an important area of information networks. Furthermore, during these years many researchers noticed how BBS systems, together with the emergence of internet services, created lively network communities in different countries. There are several case studies published from 1995 onwards (Baym 1998, 12–13, 19; Tobler 1995; Argyle & Shields 1996, 58–60. See also Driscoll 2014, 367). At the same time, there were very few studies investigating the phenomenon in Finland, although the BBS is mentioned as an important example in some publications. (Böök 1989; Järvinen 1994; Uusitupa 1993).

The larger BBSes, of which we should at least mention Metropoli and MBnet, also offered the opportunity to access internet services like email and newsgroups. According to Mikko Hirvonen, the coexistence also benefited BBSes, which were able to “filter” the material available on the internet and offer the best parts to the BBS hobbyists (Hirvonen 2010, 68–69; Interview: Teppo Oranne, February 6, 2002). During the early stages of the popularization of the internet (1993–1996), this also undoubtedly increased the popularity of BBSes.

USRobotics Courier Dual Standard from the mid-1990s
Picture 6. US-based modems of USRobotics (Finnish hobbyists commonly used the acronym ”USR”) were very popular in Finland in the 1990s. Above a USRobotics Courier Dual Standard from the mid-1990s. Source: Creative Commons, Erkaha. In March 1997, a sales announcement of Courier was published in the BBS Atom Heart Mother with an advertising slogan “A perfect modem for BBS-junkies – and even more” (BBS Atom Heart Mother 10.3.1997).

Some of the BBS users initially met the internet with suspicion. “We don’t want any internet around here! Internet is a bad place for chanting, you just can’t be sure who is reading your messages”, was an example of typical critical user comment (BBS Atom Heart Mother 17.1.1996). “Well, reading of usenet news is just fine… But nevertheless, the same kind of community [that we have here in the BBS] cannot be formed on the internet” (BBS SDi 26.8.1998).

Still, popular services like MBnet and Metropoli strongly promoted the co-existence of the BBS and internet, and slowly the attitudes started to change. For example, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was a very popular internet service in late 1990s and it started to attract BBS hobbyists. Real time chatting was so attractive that active BBSes created their own private IRC-channels:

U1> Hey, everyone. Let’s create kukkaniittu-channel for irc! I’m gonna do it tomorrow if I remember. Please, join in! Everyone! #kukkaniittu! =)

U2> Create also a bot, then that channel simply rocks! (BBS Kukkaniittu 16.9.1997)

In any case, the popularity of IRC took place at the same time when the Finnish BBS culture began to internationalize at a rapid pace. It is important to note that international connections had existed for a long time, but the arrival of the internet only made the development more effective.

“The first half of the 1990s was an interesting time for me and my buddies. We traveled to party meetings (Sweden, Denmark, Germany). Fidonet was, of course, important in those days. Telnet was used for downloading latest software abroad – we didn’t have to pay long distance charges. Anyway, in those party meetings, we began to exchange email-addresses and little later started chatting on IRC channels.” (Komu, M, 1973 [X])

The rise of the internet has often been seen as the initiator of the quick decline of the entire Finnish BBS culture (Saarikoski et al. 2009, 68). In reality, the network cultures of both systems coexisted for a fairly long time, and the change was not as significant during the transition phase. Since the 1980s, BBSes had formed local networks or they had been connected to larger, international networks like Fidonet (Driscol 2014, 7, 23–24; BBS: The Documentary Part 4/8: FidoNet). Continuous development of the software used for BBSes also assisted in networking and internationalization (Hirvonen 2010, 32–33). Mikko Hirvonen has referred to this and emphasized that the cultural adoption of the network was, therefore, a process consisting of several parallel events (Hirvonen 2011, 57–58). My own studies support this claim (Saarikoski 2017). Still, in the late 1990s BBSes with their phoneline connections, text, and character graphics started to look antiquated when compared to the real-time, global and graphical internet.

“In the end, the unavoidable situation was that when people moved out of their homes and started their studies, they no longer had phone lines; they could sometimes call the BBS at their parents during the weekends. But they went on the internet, since student apartments had cable modems, ADSLs and so on. That was the death blow.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

Picture 7. Coexistence of the BBS and internet in MBnet, as presented on the international brochure (1999) of the MikroBitti computer magazine. The editorial board picked ideas and thoughts from the discussion boards, and used them as reference material for future issues of the magazine. The number of daily users of the BBS mentioned here is obviously outdated, because the fast decline of popularity had already started in 1998. Source: The Computer Magazine with Attitude 1999.

After the peak year of 1996, BBSes started to disappear. First signs of decline were noticed on BBSes in autumn 1996. “Oh, dear… BADCOPS has ceased its activity, this is very, very sad news… there was so much good chanting going on there” (BBS Atom Heart Mother 22.11.1996)

Statistically, the largest collapse occurred in 1998–1999 (Figure 2. See also Ruhanen 2002, bittivuoto.net). Nevertheless, the most loyal users continued their activities. Still, most of them realized that the marginalization of their hobby was inevitable:

U1> I cannot believe this… even these BBSes have vanished from our area. They were so active before the decline. Where is everybody going? Scene is turning to dead zone.

U2> Yeah, this is it. BBS is a dying folk tradition. You just have to transfer the discussion areas to internet, there is no other alternative (BBS G-point 27.9.1999)

Even the users of Amiga home computers, who traditionally were keen supporters of the BBS culture, moved their activities to the internet. Relationships with international Amiga users were at that stage already very close. Hobbyists actively used IRC, Web sites and email, and the popular BBS Amiga Zone (maintained by the Finnish Amiga Users Group) was connected to the internet. The tone of the discussions was very pragmatic already in 2001. Users were also discussing what kind of net connections were available and how they could improve their activity. “At least my [inter]net connection functions so well, that I have no reason to use a modem anymore ;)”, said one user (BBS Amiga Zone 12.8.2001).

The disappearance of BBSes was strongly affected by a change of pricing by the major telephone companies, Helsingin Puhelin in particular; the new prices were unfavorable to BBS hobbyists who had used the lower local rates at night. As a researcher in this field, Mikko Hirvonen has emphasized that this was a particularly important reason for the demise of the BBS (Hirvonen 2007, 60–61; Hirvonen 2010, 38–39; Saarikoski et al. 2009, 69–70). By the early 2000s, BBSes were practically a marginal phenomenon. Relative changes in the numbers of users could be significant. For example, Pelit-BBS maintained by the Pelit computer game magazine had over 8,000 registered users in the mid-1990s, but by December 1999 – briefly before the system was closed – there were only a handful of users. MBnet – the biggest BBS service ever operating in Finland – was closed in June 2002, when the user base was already virtually non-existent. Still, an official closing ceremony was arranged, and a group of former moderators and active users were present when the red power switch was finally turned off (Ruhanen 2002, bittivuoto.net; Saarikoski 2012, 26).

When comparing the situation internationally, the decline in BBS activity seems to have occurred in roughly the same way and at the same time. For example, the use of the internationally networked Fidonet declined strongly after peaking in 1996, but it was still popular in the mid-2000s. Obviously, the adaption of telnet technology extended the use of BBSes (BBS: The Documentary Part 4/8: FidoNet). National differences were, of course, considerable. For example, the French Minitel was shut down in 2012, after three decades of continuous service (Mailland & Driscoll 2017, 1–4).

My understanding is that the decline of BBS activity in Finland was the sum of many components. The popularization of the internet and the changes in phone call prices were important practical reasons, but it was also a question of changes in use culture and the decline of hobbyist networks. This development occurred over a period of over five years, but after gaining momentum, the process started to accelerate itself. On the other hand, studies indicate the continuity of the BBS culture. For example, IRC channels clearly attracted BBS hobbyists, and many of them continued their activities without major problems. Therefore, it is a simplification to talk about the fall of the BBS culture. New network technology was adopted and the main activities continued. (Saarikoski 2017) This was also seen when new discussion boards (the most prominent one was MuroBBS) and “pre-social media” services like IRC-Gallery and Habbo Hotel emerged in the early 2000s (Suominen et al. 2017).

It is clear that for the BBS communities, which were often born around small circles, the decline in activity was an unpleasant and unwanted surprise. The last messages of BBSes clearly reflected strong emotions like sadness and feeling of loss. One good example is the final message from the Sysop of BBS Kukkaniittu:

> Subj:kukkis R.I.P.

U1> for all those few who can still read these lines. This is the end. Kukkaniittu closes its operations on 30. June. Thanks, it’s been fun… I hope that BBS-scene will continue somewhere, somehow.

/signoff (BBS Kukkaniittu 24.6.2000)

The responses from the survey also contain opinions that repeat the rhetoric of “Eternal September”, which has been brought up in research as well. Originally, this Usenet slang word was used for a period beginning in September 1993, when America Online began offering Usenet access to its users. Interestingly, at the same time, Eunet Finland started its commercial internet services (Saarikoski et al. 2009, 318–319). According to this view, the internet brought the anonymous masses online, sending the network culture into a state of regression or ruining it.

“The internet brought with it the regular people and users who behaved badly in the eyes of those familiar with the old netiquette” (Komu, M, 1973 I])

It is interesting to note that similar opinions had been seen in the BBS world in the 1990s, when the hobby was becoming significantly more popular. When compared to earlier surveys, the tone of these comments has remained surprisingly similar (Aaltonen 2004). This kind of opinions have later recurred on the discussion boards and forums of internet (Arpo 2005). The responses also indicate a clear nostalgia for the BBS, which has also been discussed in other research (Hirvonen 2011, 56–57).

“It was somewhat sad. I can clearly remember when CIA BBBS, a local system in my village, closed down. The Sysop was studying at the University of Technology in Vaasa. The studies took up so much of his time that he decided to close the BBS. Locally, it was a big deal. The end of an era.” (Komu, M, 1980, [XIX])

“Both [BBSes that I used] closed in early 2000, and afterwards, when I got to read some of the final messages in these BBSes, it did bring about feelings of nostalgia…” (Komu, M, 1977, [I])

Many of the responses are bittersweet, and they convey emotions that many people also connect with the end of a specific stage in life. This is strengthened by the fact that many memories related to the BBS hobby are very warm.

“The BBS world was a way to reach out your hand and find out that there is actually someone who grabs it, and there they are, your own people; it felt great to be able to do that.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

But you can also find several pragmatic views (61 pcs.) concerning the end of the activity; there was no time left for the hobby, the equipment became obsolete and the activity had switched to the internet. Mikko Hirvonen has stated that nostalgia regarding information networks always tends to include characteristics that can be considered favorable (Hirvonen 2011, 53). The responses that deal with continuity and progress are clearly a part of this.

“The feeling was nostalgic, since BBSes had been active communities with a strong sense of belonging. However, this was largely replaced by the IRCnet channels where this feeling has been maintained to this day among specific groups of people.” (Komu, M, 1984 [I])

The BBS nostalgia seen today is a part of a larger field of retro culture. Even in Finland, the roots of retro culture, which links with the computer hobby, reach all the way to the 1980s. The aesthetics of old computer games have already been utilized for decades (Suominen 2008). Contrary to retro games, for example, BBS nostalgia has not created an extensive range of new media productions – ANSI and ASCII graphics might be a sideline in this respect (Albert 2017). The restarting of BBSes and the demonstration of operating BBSes at exhibitions are concrete examples of this type of retro culture (Kirschenbaum 2016, 1–2). A handful of Finnish BBSes is still operating via a telnet connection, some of them using original hardware (Telnet BBS Guide 2018, http://www.telnetbbsguide.com/bbs/). Meetings of former hobbyists are common. In addition, former hobbyists are frequently discussing BBS-related topics on the internet. The services preserving the Finnish BBS culture are mainly reflective websites that archive users’ personal memories; some of them contains lots of jokes and humor (e.g. PC-lamerit, http://www.pelulamu.net/cwu/). Skrolli, the mainly volunteer-based computer culture magazine founded in 2012, has published articles dealing with the culture and history of BBSes (Skrolli.fi; Skrolli 3/2014; Skrolli 1/2016; skrolli.fi. See also the international edition of Skrolli).

Neuvosto-Savo BBS
Picture 8. There is some archived BBS-related material available on the internet. Sources consists mainly of contact lists, file areas or screenshots of user interfaces, and some short stories about the history of certain popular BBSes. Above is an advertisement of the BBS Neuvosto-Savo (“Soviet-Savo”), based in Iisalmi and maintained by the famous demoscene group Byterapers during the 1990s. The first lines are slogans: “The last fort of the world revolution. Marxist propaganda at speeds of 300 to 14,400”. This is a typical example of the humorous and sarcastic writing style of the hobbyists. Source: Kauppinen, Jukka O.: Neuvosto-Savon historia (2008).

When discussing the history of the BBS culture, we should also bring out the intimate and personal nature of BBS activity that many respondents felt had vanished due to the popularization of the internet. From a research perspective, the BBS culture appears to be a partly independent and original phenomenon in the history of information networks. To me, this is the most fascinating conflict in the BBS world: at the same time, it was open and aimed at networking, but also closed and private.


It is very difficult – practically impossible – to achieve an overall image of the time period when the BBS culture landed in Finland and developed into a significant field of activity that attracted young people. The sources are dispersed, some have disappeared, and users’ memories have changed over time. However, something can be done; the purpose of this paper was to compile flashbacks of the transformation of the Finnish BBS culture.

Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine a time without the internet: no email, no Websites, and no social media. In this narrative, the BBS falls under the radar of modern network culture: its status and significance as a “pre-internet” must neither be overemphasized nor underemphasized. The development of the BBS culture can be divided into the early period of the 1980s, characterized by the expert nature of the activity and professional improvement, and the 1990s, which can be described as the stage of popularization and diversification of the activities. One could also add the late period that started at the turn of the 21st century and which is still ongoing. The most significant feature is the ways in which young users became familiar with BBS systems and shaped their own use culture on their basis. Thus, it cannot be argued that the BBS culture disappeared in the early 2000s. Instead, it evolved into something else, and the IRC and other internet services like Freenet Finland provided platforms for this transition. The same thing happened in other countries too, but despite this, national differences can be seen. For example, one international comparison point is the French Minitel – except that Finland did not ever have such a strong national network service. Instead, there was MBnet, Vaxi and hundreds of other services available.

The data evokes an image of an entirely new type of hobby that was initially met with a great sense of wonder. The most significant feature related to experiences and memories concerns the socializing role of BBSes: in the 1990s, in particular, young people discovered BBSes on their own or were inspired by a friend, after which those interested in the same hobby gathered together and continued in a larger crowd. BBSes were used to find new friends and acquaintances whom you could also meet personally. Some friendships became permanent. At the same time, connections were opened to elsewhere in Finland and abroad. On the other hand, in the 1990s – even at the peak of their popularity – BBSes were still an activity for specific groups of hobbyists. BBSes were – depending on who defines them – a subculture or a partial culture within the home computer hobby, and above all, BBSes were a network of communities.

The data suggests that communications and the acquisition of files were the two most important means of activity. This has also been emphasized in earlier research. The attitudes toward downloading files were clearly a divisive factor among the hobbyists. Files were exchanged in practically every group, but the most active hobbyists, in particular, looked down upon those who mostly focused on downloading files and did not participate in anything else. The significance of files also brings up the division of hobbyists into different generations; to adults over 20 years old, the activities of teenagers in the BBSes might have appeared to be childish and inexperienced.

The BBS hobby had its own rules, norms and courses of action, and this could also be seen in the playful, constantly changing use of language of the message areas. The hobbyists were arguing and fighting constantly, often in a stinging and hurtful way, but there was also a sense of playfulness involved that reduced the significance of the online insults. Some of the discussion material collected during the research also seems to support this: the nuances of the messaging are hard to decipher for a modern reader if they are not aware of the exact context of the dialogue. For the most part, hobbyists also used their real name or nickname (more common term was “handle”) in the BBSes, which directly affected the conversational habits, since, especially in smaller BBSes, the users knew each other personally.

The data from the BBS lists and the survey support the earlier observations regarding the diversity of the BBS culture. It should also be emphasized that, for many minorities, BBSes offered an excellent communication channel and created a sense of community that was undoubtedly in high demand. This aspect has rarely been discussed in studies, and it would be good to look into this matter further in the future.

The strong male dominance of BBS activity undoubtedly created friction for the few women and girls who were online. Despite this, the data does not present situations where the role of women and girls would have been questioned; apparently, they were welcomed – at least for the most part. Still, this topic remains an interesting but incomplete theme that should be analyzed in much more detail.

The sources also talk about the slowdown period of BBS activity, and reminiscing about it has also brought up comments that fall within the realm of information network nostalgia. For some hobbyists, the advent of the internet and the downfall of the BBS caused unpleasant sentiments. Despite this, I feel that the nostalgic and bittersweet messages are more indicative of changes in life than changes in technology. Young people grew up, became adults, moved away from home, started studying or went to work. The old social circles had disbanded, but users could still meet face to face or on the internet. However, the old BBS magic seemed to have been lost, even though you could still encounter it in newsgroups or on IRC channels and, much later, on social media. For most hobbyists, however, this change did not cause major problems; when purchasing a new computer, they simply disconnected the old server from the phone line and BBS activity just stopped.

Studying the history of the Finnish BBS culture is both a challenge and an opportunity: on the one hand, the research may uncover new information on how modern network culture was born in Finland, but, on the other hand, the research may become so extensive that forming an overall picture becomes impossible. These challenges are also very visible in this article. However, it is the duty of a researcher to compile the results and move forward.


I would like to thank Skrolli magazine, and especially Ville-Matias Heikkilä, for all the assistance they provided. This study is a part of the consortium project Citizen Mindscapes: Detecting Social, Emotional and National Dynamics in Social Media funded by the Finnish Academy (funding decision: #293460).


Archived material is in the possession of the researcher.

All links verified 15.6.2020

Research Material

“BBS: The Documentary”, YouTube 20 Nov 2013. Released by Jason Scott under Creative Commons BY-SA. Original release May 2005. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLgE-9Sxs2IBVgJkY-1ZMj0tIFxsJ-vOkv.

Archived material

BBS lists: “Elektroniset 24h postilaatikot Suomessa” [Electronic 24 h BBSes in Finland] (1990–2004).

PeeloFAQ, BBS Finbox, 1998.

Discussion messages (BBS Atom Heart Mother, BBS Kukkaniittu, BBS G-point, BBS Amiga Zone, BBS SDi), 1996–2001.


Jukka O. Kauppinen 13.8.1999.

Hannu Strang 11.2.2002.

Teppo Oranne, 6.2.2002.

Jenni Ikävalko 15.9.2016.

Jouni Heikniemi interview, bittivuoto.net (2002). Retrieved (Internet Archive) http://web.archive.org/web/20030706140915/http://www.bittivuoto.net/artikkelit.php4?kat=haastattelut&id=1. (interviewer: Pasi Ruhanen)


Kokemuksia ja muistoja kotimaisen BBS-harrastuksen valtakaudelta [Experiences and memories from the golden age of Finnish BBSes], 11.8.2016–31.10.2016 (Komu).


Skrolli 3/2014; 1/2016

Prosessori 6–7/1982

MikroBitti 11/1985, 5/1986, 4/1987

Vikki 8/1983

Printti 9/1985


“The Computer Magazine with Attitude” MikroBitti, Sanoma Magazines Finland 1999.


PC-Lamerit, http://www.pelulamu.net/cwu/.

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[1] The survey Kokemuksia ja muistoja kotimaisen BBS-harrastuksen valtakaudelta (Experiences and memories from the golden age of Finnish BBSs) (Komu) was open from August 11 to October 31, 2016. There were a total of 124 responses. The survey was promoted through social media, especially important were the Facebook group of the Skrolli magazine and the v2.fi website.

[2] Messages are from the following BBS systems: BBS Atom Heart Mother, BBS Kukkaniittu, BBS Finbox, BBS G-point, BBS Sdi and BBS Abomination. These systems were local, containing some 10–30 core users. On the other hand, data also consisted copied messages from bigger systems, like MBnet ja Amiga Zone. Messages were provided by former hobbyists.

[3] A comprehensive study of these messages was be published in 2019 (Suominen, Saaarikoski & Vaahensalo 2019).

[4] The slang word is a little difficult to translate, because in Finnish “messuta” also includes a reference to “loud talking”. Therefore a person who is “chanting“ is talking continuously and loudly and tries to attract the attention of the public.

[5] The name is a direct reference to studio album (released 1970) by the English progressive rock band Pink Floyd. “Perhaps, the best band, ever”, stated the Sysop in December 1995.

[6] Eng. ”Flower meadow“. “Niittu“ is an old Finnish word, used in Häme region (Tavastia Proper).

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

Hobbyist and Entrepreneurs: A Study of the Interplay Between the Game Industry and the Demoscene

demoscene, digital culture, game industry, hobbyists, innovations and development blocks, Sweden

Ulf Sandqvist
ulf.sandqvist [a] umu.se
Umeå University

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Sandqvist, Ulf. 2020. ”Hobbyist and Entrepreneurs: A Study of the Interplay Between the Game Industry and the Demoscene”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/hobbyist-and-entrepreneurs-a-study-of-the-interplay-between-the-game-industry-and-the-demoscene/

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This article investigates the Swedish demoscene in the 1980s and 1990s. The aim is to explore the relationship between the scene and the formation of the Swedish game industry. The scene had a large presence in Northern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s, and these are also important years for the formation of the game industry. The scene has a connection to the development block linked to the major innovations in microelectronics and particularly the home computer. This article argues that through a generational effect the individuals born in the 1970s became an important base in the computer hobbyist scene and eventually the game industry. The spirit of collaboration, networking and friendly competition in the scene were likely a main motivator for the young enthusiasts but when they transitioned into commercial production, they would sometimes have to negotiate with the scene to try to avoid its effective non-commercial distribution capacity. Many of the game developers did not pursue longer university education, but it was likely not necessary in the 1990s if you had good computer skills and built a broad network within the scene in your spare time.


It is hard to escape the enormous cultural and societal changes that have followed in the footsteps of recent advances in digital technology. Since their introduction into homes in the 1980s, digital technologies have evolved into an essential part of many people’s lives. Most of us today are continuously consuming and creating digital material via the different devices we use. Games in particular have successfully migrated to new accessible platforms, making digital games ever-present in people’s lives. Hence, their cultural and economic importance has increased. Games are even becoming an important driving force in the development of significant new media phenomena like VoD and streaming.

Among the different kinds of software, digital games are some of the most multidimensional and complex. By pushing the boundaries and utilizing the very latest digital technology, games can encompass a large array of cultural expressions. Game developers will also push and create a need for the development of future digital technologies. Gaming software is more demanding on hardware than many other types of software. Games are often at the digital audio-visual frontier and in a sense the evolution of games is an excellent visual example of Moore’s Law (Moore 1965). However, the game industry has not always been at the very audio-visual frontier. In the 1980s and 1990s, the boundaries of digital technology were also successfully explored by non-commercial groups connected to the demoscene. The scene consisted mainly of computer-interested young men that developed audio-visual artworks at the intersection between digital art, software hacking, piracy and computer games. Over time, some of these individuals moved their focus and attempts to make a livelihood into game development. Thus, in the Swedish case, they contributed to the establishment of the Swedish game development industry (Sandqvist 2012; Maher 2012, 201).

There is a small emergent sphere of research about the demoscene. However, few have focused on the connections between the scene and game development. Hence this article aims to investigate the Swedish demoscene and especially explore the relationship between the scene and the formation of the Swedish game industry. The demoscene had a large presence in Northern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s and these are also important years for the early formation of the game industry and its especially formative years for the global dispersion of game development outside the core production centres in the USA and Japan. This article is therefore a contribution to the understanding of the history of the digital game industry particularly in Europe.

Previous literature and research

The interest in the history of the digital game industry has increased in the last decade and many new projects, books and articles have been dedicated to documenting and describing different aspects of the industry. Even though games and game developers have received a lot of attention, the demoscene is still sparsely investigated. Little has been written about the Swedish part of the scene, which is regrettable as it was likely one of the main hubs of worldwide demoscene activity (Borzyskowski 1996; Reunanen 2010). It seems safe to say that Sweden had a culturally expansive scene with many demo groups, numerous local demo parties and, as a youth culture phenomenon, had at the time a presence in Swedish media.

An interesting historical aspect, especially in relation to the European case, is that the nations that historically have dominated the gaming industry, the United States and Japan, had less lively scenes. The explanation for the division is not clearly technical or economic. Both Japan and the United States had the same if not better conditions than several of the countries in northern Europe. These countries had prominent computer hobbyist cultures, but they were focused on other aspects like the free software movement in the USA (Reunanen 2010, 25).

In the Nordic context, the demoscene played a role in the early development of the computer gaming industry in the 1990s (Sandqvist 2010; Wolf 2015). Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa (2017) have specifically discussed the links and connections in a comparative case study focusing on the Nordic scene and industry. Ernkvist (2007) has documented digital game development in Sweden from the 1960s in a contemporary witness seminar which also included representatives active in the demoscene. However, a broader and more overarching national approach has not yet been utilized.

In recent years there has also been a small upsurge of books about different hobbyist subcultures in Sweden (Goldberg and Larsson 2011; Linder Krauklis and Linder Krauklis 2015; Säfström and Wilhelmsson 2017). They are written by enthusiasts and none have directly described the demoscene, but they are insightful because of the descriptions of hobbyist culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and adjacent phenomena like hacker or gaming cultures.

Even though historical accounts about the demoscene are scarce, in the literature about the Swedish and Nordic game industry there is a strong narrative about the demoscene heritage. Many accounts describe the developers’ background in the demoscene. Typically, the story would be linked to a few currently successful companies and their roots in different demo groups. Goldberg and Larsson (2013, 76–7) write about the Scandinavian scene and the connections to the industry:

Several Scandinavian groups became famous through demoparties – Hackerence and Dreamhack in Sweden; The Gathering in Norway; Assembly in Finland. These events established networks and began collaborations giving rise to the largest export giants of the Swedish game industry. DICE has its roots in a demogroup called The Silents; Starbreeze, who developed the acclaimed games The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness was from the group Triton; and the Finnish group Remedy, known mostly for the Alan Wake and Max Payne, has its origin in the demogroup Future Crew.

These accounts are also frequently chronological and linear in their description of historical events. The developers started out in the demoscene where they learnt several skills that they later transferred over to their successful game development endeavours. Wong (2016) writes about the history of the Swedish game development industry:

From the demoscene days, when hobbyists got together to show how they could do amazing things, developers have always been keen to challenge the limits of hardware and software. Now they are doing the same on the triple-A, casual and indie scenes.

However, many of the reports and stories about the Swedish game industry seem to be trapped in what Huhtamo (2005) calls the “chronicle era”. Most narratives are descriptive, sensationalist and focus exclusively on successful individuals or companies. The game industry in Sweden is also often framed as exceptional and leading. The idiom “The Swedish game wonder” is often used in Sweden, indicating that the development industry is a sensation and presumably unexplainable (Sandqvist 2010). One explanation might be that many historical accounts are written by enthusiasts and journalists who have a direct incentive to present an exciting and selling narrative. They lack a critical distance, analytic depth and do not frame the development within a broader context. This is also a recurring pattern within game and computer history (Fogelberg 2011, 31–2; Guins 2014).

In a broader historical context of game development, the influence of enthusiasts is not a unique phenomenon. The first computer games developed during the 1950s and 1960s were created without commercial interests on the mainframe computers available at different universities (Kline et al. 2003). European gaming development has often grown out of hobbyist and non-commercial contexts where individual enthusiasts have played a role (Izushi and Aoyama, 2006; Saarikoski and Suominen, 2009).

Aim and method

The specific object of investigation in this article is the demoscene and early game industry in Sweden in the 1980s and 1990s. The overarching purpose is to investigate more closely the emergence of the demoscene in Sweden as well as the intersection of commercial forces and user-driven cultural production. The main research question directing this research is: how did the hobbyist from the demoscene transition into the early game industry in Sweden? In a broad sense, looking at the demoscene and the game industry enables an empirical study of the socio-cultural and economic processes in the borderland between “independent culture” and commercialism. This can add to the knowledge about the conditions for the development of digital cultures and the relation between user-driven cultural production and commercial forces within the formation of a culture industry. With the increased interest in the game industry this study can also contribute to the understanding of cultural production in relation to the development of the computer gaming industry in a broad European context.

A problem when studying the history of the game industry is that reliable data about the industry is scarce (White and Searle 2013, 34). Few scholars have made comprehensive and reliable data available. This study will utilize a mixed methodological approach, which makes it possible to combine both quantitative (closed-ended) and qualitative (open-ended) material. This article is based on several different data sources: secondary sources, a longitudinal database and interviews with people active at the intersection between the demoscene and the game industry in Sweden. The descriptive macro perspective can be complemented with the more individual and personal stories.

The longitudinal database contains individual data on every employee that have worked at a Swedish game developing company 1997 to 2010. The data is collected by the Swedish statistical agency, Statistics Sweden and originates from several different Swedish agencies (SCB 2016). Researchers can apply for access to this data and the application process involves an ethical evaluation of the different variables to which the researcher requests access.

The interviews collected for this study were made in an oral history tradition (Thompson 2000). The demoscene did not leave much of a presence in any formal documents or public archives, so interviews are one of the few ways to approach this subject. By utilizing open ended semi-structured interviews and a life story approach, the researcher can engage in a dialogue with the source. The interviewee’s story is structured chronologically by the researcher, but the parts collected in this case were focused on the intersection and the transition between the two analytical spheres, the independent user-driven demo development and the commercial game development. The selection of interviewees was made so that it covers both successful game developer entrepreneurs and some that struggled along the way with their first game development endeavours. This choice was a way to circumvent or balance the more common linear hero narrative connected to the history of game developers.

Framing the demoscene and game industry

From a structural analysis perspective, the period from the end of the 1970s to 1990s constitutes a transformation period in a new longer macroeconomic cycle (Schön 2013; Taalbi 2014, 81–5; Sjöö 2014, 97; Sandqvist 2015). These periods arise from new development blocks connected to radical technological innovations, which are often general-purpose technologies. The new technologies are used to create new opportunities in a transformation process that creates many different new products and subsequently new industries will emerge. Such a process ultimately transforms large parts of the economy and reshapes society. An example from the 20th century would be the revolutionary effects generated by electrification (Taalbi 2017, 1442). The 1970s saw the origin of a new cycle and it was largely based on major innovations in microelectronics. This shift is more commonly referred to as the third industrial revolution (Sjöö 2014, 43–4).

For the broader public this meant that new digital innovations became accessible. Smaller and cheaper computers with microprocessors became available during the 1970s and a generation of more user-friendly computers targeting households were introduced during the early 1980s (Ceruzzi 2000, 263; Foster 2005, 18). Reunanen and Silvast (2009, 290) have pointed out that the home computer revolution was a core necessary for the development of demoscene. Particularly the introduction of the Commodore 64 microcomputer in 1982 became of central importance, as it was a machine that the scene essentially formed around.

From a Swedish perspective the 1970s marks the end of an era with exceptional economic growth after WWII, sometimes referred to as the golden age of economic growth (Schön 2010, 321). Sweden had emerged from the global turmoil undamaged and large investments into the industry meant that Swedish companies could produce for the large demand on the European market. Sweden transformed into one of the richer industry nations in the world.

The 1970s and 1980s also mark the height of the politics surrounding the Swedish welfare state. These policies were connected to the long-lasting influence and power of the Swedish democratic left. On an overarching level the Social Democratic Party manoeuvred to find a third way between state socialism and Western capitalism during the Cold War era. The core goal was to create efficient capitalist markets, but through wide-ranging state investments and wide-ranging regulations (Schön 2010, 312). The state came to be involved in many parts of society, from an expansive industry policy to culture and media policies (Syvertsen et al. 2014). However, the ideology of the Swedish Social Democrats was not oriented towards entrepreneurs and small businesses. Well into the 1990s their policies were instead primarily leaning towards expanding the state-owned service sector and supporting the private manufacturing industries, especially the large companies. Smaller firms were not seen as an important factor in economic development and occasionally even discussed as a problem. Therefore, the Swedish economy was regulated to promote the large national companies (Henrekson 2000; Andersson-Skog 2007, 458).

A consequence of the political development and the extensive welfare policies is that Sweden tends to stand out as an extreme in many international comparisons (Rothstein 2001). Sweden had a comparably even income distribution and would score at the very top in comparisons related to social factors/welfare measurements, gender equality, social capital and innovations (UNDP 2013).

The intersection between enthusiasts and commercialism

In the research about digital cultural production, it has been stated that the boundaries between those who create content and those who consume it are being erased (Varnelis 2008; Haggren et al. 2008). There are examples in many different areas such as the myriad of open source projects, the expansion of streaming sites like Twitch or global information gathering projects such as Wikipedia. The thresholds for participating and creating new content have also become lower (Jenkins et al. 2009). As digital technology has shown itself to promote user-driven production, the previously dominant ideas of production and consumption are being eroded as a clear two-sided process (Hardt and Negri 2000; Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter 2009, 23; Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). This, in favour of new notions of how the roles previously categorized in terms of consumers and producers flow together and interact. These processes encompass both the cultural and the economic spheres (Jenkins 2006; Fuchs 2008).

However, digital technology tends to have two opposite sides: the collaboration-oriented (open-source projects, community production etc.) and the profit-oriented, characterized by major companies like Facebook, Nintendo and Activision. It has been claimed that “colonies of enthusiasts”, rather than large companies, drive creative development forward, and that the new creative cultures can transform capitalism (Rheingold 1994, xxi; Mason, 2008). The demoscene, which could be seen as such a colony, was one part of the larger computer culture, consisted of a loosely assembled network of independent enthusiasts tinkering with hardware and developing new applications. The scene gained a firmer and more stable form through computer magazine, computer gatherings and demo competitions. Its organizational form could potentially also be described as an ”innovation community” (von Hippel 2005).

Within the enthusiast computer culture, many creative groups have not only had different values than those in the capitalist market economy, but also directly argued and acted against making profit of their creations (Levy 2002; Stallman 2002; Kaarto and Fleischer 2005). Nevertheless, there are many examples of commercial incorporation of the ideas, goods and services. In practice, it is often difficult to maintain an absolute distinction between commercialism on the one hand and genuine creativity on the other (Hebdige 1979).

Exploring the demoscene and the game industry

As far as at the historical chronology of the demoscene and the game industry goes it does not materialize in a vacuum. The scene and the industry were parts of a longer evolution connected to the diffusion of computers into different parts of Swedish society. There was for example a digital art scene from the early days of computers and computer production. Svensson (2000) writes that it is possible to define a scene of Swedish computer artists (Swedish: datorkonstnärer) from the mid-1960s. These early forerunners were often born in the 1930s and 1940s and had encounters with the very early computers at the universities or research departments at larger companies and started exploring and exhibiting digital graphics and music from the 1960s (Svensson 2000, 45f). Digital game production has a similar history. Computer games were being developed since the 1950s and 1960s at universities and companies that developed computers, often as showcases for the capabilities of the new machines (Saarikoski and Suominen 2009; Sandqvist 2012). Commercial game development started immediately when the first home computers like the VIC-20, ZX Spectrum and Commodore PET were introduced (Ernkvist 2007; Sandqvist 2012; Sunhede and Lindell 2016).

Growing up with home computers

The Swedish demoscene emerged as a phenomenon during the second half of the 1980s. Renowned groups with Swedish members, like Triad, Fairlight, The Silents, CCS and Phenomena all started out during this era. Some of these demogroups also ultimately started organizing their own demoparties during the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. Recurrent annual and influential demoparties like Birdie, Hackerence and Dreamhack also started during this period and flourished during the early 1990s (Konzak 2015, 460).

The scene was in many ways a new youth movement. In the open Swedish economy digital technology had quickly become accessible for the larger masses and the scene was a way for youths to organize activity around the new home computers. This could be seen as a response to the economic realities of the new machines. New games and other forms of software were expensive and could also be hard to acquire from the commercial marketplace. Simultaneously the new technology was extremely suited for replication and distribution. It is possible to see how it would be appealing to engage in the culture to get hold of games and other forms of software. However, there was also a collective attempt to develop and improve software for the new open hardware. Håkan Sundell (nickname PHS), who became a member of the group CCS (Computerbrains Cracking Service), talks about how he got into the hobbyist culture in the 1980s and the importance of the user community to develop software for the Commodore 64:

The machine [The Commodore 64] that was quite open. Maybe that’s why the machine was so unique. It was possible to expand the functionality. It came with an operating system that was not that good. It was hastily done, so there were always opportunities for improvements. Being able to release improvements made me feel that I have control and you could exchange experience and programs with others and see who could make the best improvements and improve the machine. It was the users who built the application base for that machine. That is quite unique. Today, a PC is delivered with ready to use software. For the [Commodore] 64, it was simply the user who built it. A whole community was built with what they created among themselves. I was into this, you thought it was slow. I wrote a cassette turbo myself. Obviously, I called it PHS turbo. (Ernkvist 2007, 19)

International studies have indicated that most of the participants in the scene were born in the 1970s and early 1980s (Reunanen 2010, 26). Even if the picture is not clear in Sweden, this seems to be in line with the interviews and secondary sources from Sweden. The different demoparties or copyparties in the end of the 1980s and early 1990s were also often held at schools (Wilhelmsson and Grönwall 2014, 91), indicating that the participants were likely still attending them and thus probably not older than 18–19 years old.

The pattern is the same with the game developing industry, which shows a large dominance by individuals born in the 1970s (see Diagram 1). In other words, the founders of the many companies that emerged in the 1990s were very young when they started out. The average age of the employees was 27 in 1997 and had increased to around 32 by 2010. The pattern that a specific generation can be important to the diffusion of different radical innovations has been described as a “generational effect” in the structural analysis literature (Schön 2013, 103). When new radical innovations are introduced there is a knowledge deficit, since the workforce is locked in the old paradigm. This creates inertia due to a potentially very expensive mismatch in the human capital stock. A new generation that has been growing up with the new technology can possibly mitigate this situation. They can take advantage and even develop the innovations further. In this case the generation born in the 1970s was such an important generation related to software connected to the microcomputer.

Diagram 1. The generations employed in the Swedish game industry 1997–2010.

Parents and computer education

Microcomputers were new and still rare in the early 1980s and the possible benefits and effects of computer usage were not always obvious. A report for the Swedish Commission for Informatics Policy (Swedish: Datadelegationen) in 1984 shows a tentative and ambivalent position towards digital games and their very immersive effect on children (Datadelegationen 1984, 19–20). This ambivalence was likely also true for many parents who were unaware of the future impact and importance of computers. This could even generate tension surrounding the time-consuming computer hobby. The parents of Oskar Stål (nickname Flamingo), a member of the demo group Triad, had concerns regarding the hobby:

My programming was probably not very popular with my mom and dad. They saw me sitting in the basement all the time, even in the summer. They were simply afraid that I would throw away my youth and that it would never lead anywhere. They also became suspicious and wondered if someone was taking advantage of youths by making them struggle with programming all day long. (Wilhelmsson and Grönwall 2014, 95)

Young computer enthusiasts could have a difficult time negotiating access to the computer. A new opportunity arose for some young hobbyist when the state invested in computer education. The Swedish government decided to make computer science compulsory in the primary school curriculum beginning in the early 1980s. Kaiserfeld (1996, 252) writes, regarding the school initiative:

This change in curriculum was consistent with an ideal of popular education that developed under Sweden’s Social Democrats, who held political power in Sweden from World War II until the late 1970s. Part of this ideal was the belief that education across a wider social spectrum would lead to a democratization of society. Class differences could be eliminated by education, and more knowledge was generally seen as necessary if members of the lower classes were to gain more control of their own destinies.

The generations born in late 1960s and 1970s were benefiting from many of the welfare policies and specifically these investments and a large number of people involved in game development in the 1980s and 1990s would have been enrolled in the new computer courses. Christoffer Nilsson was part of the hobbyist scene and would later start the game development company Atod. He had the opportunity to pass the computer course by doing a special assignment, something that had positive side effects at home:

My mother asked the teacher about the result of the assignment. He said, well there will be no problem for Christoffer to get a job as a programmer with all the knowledge he has. Then my parents understood that it was an occupation, even if it was not a common one. Then the mood changed. Someone with authority had said that this could actually be a job and it was not a waste of time. (Nilsson, Interview 2015)

Håkan Sundell took advantage of the computer courses that were part of his technical upper secondary school education (Swedish: gymnasium). Sundell used a special assignment to develop and maximise an application to compress data:

I studied four years technical [an extended technical program at upper secondary school level], and I did special work just to focus on these principles. There were many who did this, for example, Mr. Z did it. We competed on who could do the fastest and best routines. This competition was really fun. You figured out if you have a 64-code game and pack it, how long did it take to unpack it again? Was it half a second? You sat with a watch and clocked it. Then you felt worried, well yeah Mr. Z has managed to do it a bit faster. Then you had to go back and optimize and count cycles. Could I tweak it a bit more until it got even faster? (Ernkvist 2007, 19)

During the mid-1990s a few upper secondary schools started new niche computer educations. Jens Andersson, was a member in the demo groups Yodel and The Black Lotus (TBL) and worked at Starbreeze, went to one of these first programs and talks about the connecting effect these educations had:

There were only two places in the country, Uddevalla and Forsmark, that offered a computer specialization. […] It was fun, and I met people that today are active in the gaming industry […] there were so few programs available, so those who were driven and most interested came together there just like in the demoscene. (Andersson, Interview 2015)

Looking at the data from the game industry the lack of longer educations is telling of the structure (see Diagram 2). The hobbyist roots are likely in effect here when the early game developers had few formal credentials when working at these new tech companies. In the 1990s roughly less than 10 percent of the employees had a university degree and about 50 percent of the employees were fundamentally autodidacts. Over time the proportion of the autodidacts has decreased and with many new game specific degrees being established at Swedish universities most new employees have degrees.

Diagram 2. Education levels, Swedish game industry 1997–2010.

Conflicts and tensions

The tension between the scene and games has historically been multidimensional. Most young people in the scene were interested in games, but the attitudes were not always overwhelmingly positive, and could even be hostile (Reunanen 2017, 46). Groups would crack games and distribute them so there was a clear material conflict and tension. The Swedish Commission for Informatics Policy discussed the prolific copying of software and its possible negative effect on the availability and quality of commercial software (Datadelegationen 1984, 18–20). For the demo scene cracked games were a major medium for distributing demos and copying games at parties was a common practice in the 1980s and 1990s. Reunanen (2010, 23) has questioned the notion that demo making and game cracking were separated activities. He writes “groups continued the legal and illegal activities in parallel, cracking games and making legal demos at the same time”. There might not have been a clear distinction between a legal demoscene absorbed in digital art production and a shadier cracking scene freely distributing commercial games. Large groups like Fairlight and Triad would have different sections involved in both activities. There was also over time a commodification of cracking and distribution activities via more organised illegal sales of cracked games. Håkan Sundell talks about this development in relation to the Swedish case:

The Swedish [groups] did not deal with that kind of illegal activity, that money business was not present in Sweden. It was abroad, mainly in Holland [The Netherlands], as it was like that, often in combination with the fact that they were dealing drugs and such as well. (Ernkvist 2007, 22–23)

How widespread and organised the market for cracked games was in Sweden is difficult to assess, but it is safe to assume that cracked games were bought and sold by at least some unscrupulous individuals (Wilhelmsson and Grönwall 2014, 85). Whether there was a commercial interest or not, Swedish game developers came up with strategies to possibly negotiate with the crackers and pirates. At Digital Illusions they did not write a strong copy protection for their first game because they figured that it would be cracked anyway. They instead wrote a message in the code pleading to the anyone reading it not to crack the game (Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). When the renowned Swedish group Fairlight cracked the game anyway, they in turn wrote in the intro text that the game was programmed by The Silents:

We are indeed proud to present the AWESOME game to you! This game was programmed by a group of Swedes, better known as THE SILENTS! We strongly encourage you to purchase the ORIGINAL of this game and please do NOT spread the game to any lamers! We are proud to have such talents in our country and we STRONGLY encourage people to BUY THE GAME! (Pouet.net 2019)

This could possibly be described as a “code of honour” within the scene in relation to some of the releases. However, the Fairlight members could not honestly believe that the game would not be distributed among the community of Amiga users. Håkan Sundell talks about how they would receive games from old friends in the scene and how they then acted: “we got originals sent to us when someone who had started out in a cracking group had developed a game. In such cases you simply waited or did not crack it at all.” (Ernkvist 2007, 25).

The tension with the commercial sphere could also by itself lead to unexpected connections and endeavours into the market space. Håkan Sundell was contacted by a Swedish game distribution company that had somehow connected them to the different scene releases of their games. Sundell talks about how the group were asked to make a commercial game for the company:

In fact, in 1985, we did a commercial game, it was for a company called CBI (Computer Boss International), located in Eskilstuna. Christer Nydell [who owned CBI], was at the time engaged in distributing games. When he distributed games, he obviously noticed that there were people who bought games and then released copies. He contacted us and told us that I will sponsor you and make sure you do some more sensible things. (Ernkvist 2007, 21)

Starting a business

In the late 1980s and 1990s game development was still not very professionalized, and games could still be developed by smaller teams. Several demo groups and former members of demo groups transitioned over to game development during this period. For example, Atod, Digital Illusions, Starbreeze, UDS, O3 games and South End Interactive had their roots in groups like Northstar, The Silents, The Black Lotus, Triton, Cryonics and Limited Edition (Sandqvist 2012; Burman 2016; Sunhede and Lindell 2016; Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). However, it was not necessarily their first game development endeavours since many members of the demoscene had started out tinkering with games and game development (Ernqvist 2007, 21; Burman 2016, 8). Oskar Burman (nickname OB), member of the demo group Anatomica and later at the company UDS, talks about his first connections with computers and his passion for game creation:

I made games in STOS, a lot of games. I made games all day, or as soon as I got home from school. Some games I developed for a couple of weeks and made them pretty good and some games I only worked on for a day and then I got tired of it. I tried to bundle games that became a bit bigger, so tried to release them somehow. Eventually I tried to sell them. I released three or four compilations with two, three or four games on a floppy disk and there was a menu where you could choose the games. I advertised in Swedish and maybe some international computer magazine. (Burman, Interview 2015)

The young hobbyists that stated to transition into game production had the necessary computer knowledge and had likely fiddled around with game development before. However, they lacked knowledge in other areas and had for example not necessarily acquired business and management skills. Consequently, the young entrepreneurs did not always run their companies as traditional businesses, and some had unorthodox structures. A company like Digital Illusions was organized more like a collective without a clear ownership (Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). At the game developing firm UDS the developers lived and worked as a collective. They rented a small apartment that simultaneously functioned as the company office and living quarters. Oskar Burman talks about the early days of the company:

It was five people who lived in an apartment in Norrköping […] Some of us had unemployment benefits so we got a bit of money that we shared. Someone else had some money which they invested in the company. We had few means, but everyone chipped in and did their part. (Burman, Interview 2015)

The young entrepreneurs also had to link up to the global game market. The lack of domestic publishers has always forced Swedish game developers to connect with international publishers and especially the more established UK industry. Christoffer Nilsson talks about the early experiences as young entrepreneurs in the commercial sphere:

We were inexperienced regarding the language and the business. […] It was a hassle for us when we had to send an invoice in English. It was actually so unpleasant that we only sent one out of two of the instalments. (Nilsson, Interview 2015)

When starting companies, the background in the demoscene had some benefits. One indication of this is that the scene became an important recruiting network for new companies (Tyni and Sotamaa 2014; Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). The competition for talented people with computer skills was fierce during the 1990s from companies outside game development (Sandqvist 2012). The development and professionalization of the game industry was also rapid, and the material conditions were changing. Håkan Sundell talks about working with games for many years and how many eventually ended up on different career paths:

We also made games that were almost complete that we never sold, so we continued with the Amiga and the [Commodore] 64 and developed our own tools. We made design for levels and graphics. We built the entire development kit both on the 64 and the Amiga, but we did not have time or money to continue. We made it half way but never finished. […] Most went to upper secondary school and then after school most got something real to do. Then you got work at a company, Ericsson, Volvo or SAAB, and so did you do other things and you no longer had time for it. (Ernkvist 2007, 26)


This article has focused on the hobbyist Swedish demoscene and the interplay between this scene and the commercial forces in the game industry. Everyone born in the 1970s in Sweden with an interest in computers and games was highly likely to encounter the scene. This was also a generation who were born when the Swedish welfare system was at its pinnacle and who could benefit from the high economic development but also from the public sector with extensive social policies like a free education system. However, the state investments into a new primary school curriculum was probably never the large motivating factor or even the primary source of knowledge for young computer hobbyists, particularly not in comparison to the opportunities to socialise, collaborate, network with like minded peers and take part in friendly competition that the different groups and the scene at large offered. However, Swedish teachers might have helped them to envision a future where it would be possible to make a living from what they already did in their spare time. The computer hobby was also a way for young Swedish computer enthusiasts to approach and negotiate a path into adulthood (Nissen 1993, 318). They were young and possessed advanced knowledge that could grant them work and consequently a bridge into the adult world. In the case of game development, some would carve their own path as entrepreneurs and business owners.

Looking back at this part of history, we need to remember that these were teenagers and young adults. As ex post observers it can be beneficial to try to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment without idealizing them or their achievements. Though some of the hobbyist were very young they possessed the right computer knowledge and a broad network of like minded people. They therefore had a small window of opportunity to transmission into game business and made use of the chance they got. The sometimes unorthodox and ad hoc business practice could possibly be influenced by their background in the non-commercial demoscene, but could just as well be connected to a level of youthful inexperience. Several of the early companies with ties to the demoscene would struggle or disappear (Burman 2016). However, a few developers, like Digital Illusions and Starbreeze, managed to connect to other more stable and established companies and eventually reached success in the new millennium (Sandqvist 2012; Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). On a general theoretical level, we may refer to this as a successful incorporation into capitalism, but this process required some trial and error.

The data indicates that a large portion of the young computer enthusiasts that went into the game industry did not pursue a university level education. This can possibly be explained by the generational effect connected to the new development block surrounding digital technology. Many Swedish sceners will be found within the game industry but also at other information and communication technology companies. The mismatch in the human capital stock was likely large enough that a formal education or diploma was of little use to the individual at the time. Such a situation probably only arises in a transformation period. The young computer hobbyists could use these circumstances to turn their hobby into companies, professions and careers.

In the literature there are some debates about the social functions of games and the computer culture. Games became a tool to introduce the broader strata and the working class to computers and information technology, henceforth preparing them for the new digital demands of the labour market (Datadelegationen 1984, 19; Arvidsson 2002, 28; Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter 2009, 28). Even though the collaboration-oriented scene partly worked against the industry, the scene helped to create and distribute games to the broader masses. Nissen (1993, 332) states that the youth computer subculture in a way also proved to the general population that it is possible to understand computers and master coding and therefore helped creating an interest in computers among the population in general. In this way the demoscene as a colony of enthusiasts might have been less of a counter culture and more of an actor in the creation of the first generation of digitally literate Swedes.

Moving forward there is a need for a more extensive mapping of the scene in Sweden. The historical development, the scale and scope of the scene ought to be studied and analysed more comprehensively. It would also be beneficial to do future inquiries regarding the ideology within the different hobbyist groups and the overall doxa of the scene. This would add to the understanding of the scene in general but also the transition into commercial activities as well as the broader zeitgeist in the 1990s with the transformation of the welfare state. The political context could also make Sweden a relevant case in a broader comparative research effort. The evolution of the Swedish scene and connections with the game industry could be explored and contrasted with dissimilar countries like Germany, Netherlands and Australia. The network structure and the acquired skills were likely similar, but the national contexts could have influenced other aspects like the societal framing and opportunities for the hobbyist moving into commercial game development.


All links verified 16.6.2020


Christoffer Nilsson, October 1, 2015, Interview done via Skype.

Jens Andersson, November 5, 2015, Interview done via Skype.

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1–2/2019 WiderScreen 22 (1–2)

Synching and Performing: Body (Re)-Presentation in the Short Video App TikTok

beauty, body image, gender, performativity, self-representation

Mona Khattab
mona.khattab [a] uwasa.fi
Doctoral Student
School of Marketing and Communication
University of Vaasa

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Khattab, Mona. 2019. ”Synching and Performing: Body (Re)-Presentation in the Short Video App TikTok”. WiderScreen 22 (1-2). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2019-1-2/synching-and-performing-body-re-presentation-in-the-short-video-app-tiktok/

The performance of the body via new media seems centered on negotiating stereotypes of the body image, mainly gendered images of masculinity and femininity, and perceived notions of beauty as an indicator of sexual appeal. This study seeks to analyze the role of social networks in shaping stereotypes that rely on body visibility. The article chooses the short video app TikTok as one of the recent social networking apps (SNAs) offering users the ability to upload, edit, and share short form videos. The research methodology offers a content analysis of sample videos focusing on self-representation. Such analysis examines the impact SNAs have on the formation and expression of users’ notions of beauty and gender through their digital representations of the body.

The body has long been viewed at the heart of contention between public and private spheres. Due to such tension between the natural individuality of the body and its societal public visibility, ownership of the body and its visibility intersect, leading to issues of self-representation. Sexuality and gender, already linked in more ways than one to the body and how it is performed, have also become linked to social media networks and new digital platforms that accelerate and accentuate the performativity of the body. With the potential of sharing images and videos of a given user’s body, each user falls under the pressure of performing their body knowing it is watched by other users, as well as in comparison to other performances seen in other shared images and videos. As a result of all these elements, the body is constantly a key player in an individual’s self-representation.

If the visibility of the body shapes its public significance, then the performance of the body, in that sense, can be ultimately seen as a presentation of a body image. With the potential for modification via social network sites (SNSs), the performance of the body is locked into constant presentation and representation. This shaping and reshaping of the body image seem centered on negotiating stereotypes of the body, mainly gendered images of masculinity and femininity, and perceived notions of beauty as an indicator and perpetuator of sexiness and sexual appeal.

Sexuality and gender can be viewed as social constructs. SNSs play a role in shaping stereotypes that rely on body image to construct gender-related notions. One effective method of projecting sexuality is body visibility. SNSs work to extract and summarize the self, valuing “characteristics” that are important for garnering attention (Cirucci 2018, 42). The foregrounding of attention in social media underlines the increased importance of the visuality of the body. As mediation of sexuality creates an infrastructure of sexual life based on representations of body images, digital media, in its user-oriented potential, offers many ways of self-representation, thus democratizing sexual presentation. Such presentation rests largely on performing a body image. Psychological studies of social norms and sexual behavior found strong correlations between social media images and peer perceptions of sexual behavior (Young and Jordan 2013).

The short video app TikTok is an example of recent social network applications, which are referred to in this article as SNAs, following the use of SNSs to refer to social network sites. TikTok is among the recent SNAs that offers users the ability to upload, edit, and share short videos. TikTok achieved impressive popularity, particularly among adolescents, teens and individuals in their early twenties, commonly referred to as tweens, thus targeting Millennials, and Generation Z.

Scope of Research

The current research analyzes videos posted on TikTok in order to examine its role in performing aspects of gender and beauty. Through this analysis, the study focuses, based on the nature of the app, on the age groups normally impacted by the app. The videos are categorized to cover various aspects of gender and beauty that can be addressed by the functionality of the features of the app, thus highlighting the significance of the short video app specifically for issues of gender and sexualized beauty for the generation it attracts.

The study is motivated by observations of the rapidly rising potential of social media in not only reflecting, but also shaping sexualized notions such as beauty and gender. Since social media itself is evolving with new apps and new uses, the potential only deepens and broadens. More notions can be impacted by new social media. The significance of this study is that it can help draw attention to the versatility of new digital social media and its growing impact on performativity and self-representation.

This research problematizes digital platforms’ societal impact by inquiring whether digital representations of the body in short video apps can be visibly impacted by sexualized notions of gender and beauty. The paper tries to answer the research question; how does TikTok as an example of new digital media illustrate the normalization of stereotyped body images of beauty and gender?

Short Video Apps

A new video-related feature developed that impacted new media: video editing. The ability to create videos and edit them profoundly personalized the video experience in the world of social networking and turned it from a sharing function into a creative one. In the newly minted short form video apps such as TikTok, and before that Musical.ly, unprecedented editing features, mainly lip synching, filters, and speed control, have set the new apps apart with editing capabilities that personalize each video, thus bringing the individualization and creativity of video sharing to a new level (Sensor Tower, n.d.).

The popularity of TikTok was precedented only by its predecessor Musical.ly before their merger. Developed by Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang in 2014 (Baig 2018), Musical.ly almost instantly witnessed 500 people downloading the app every day, and by 2016, Musical.ly reached a total of 70 million users at 10 million users daily, already at times overtaking Snapchat and Instagram (Carson 2016). Musical.ly was bought by Chinese AI company ByteDance in 2017 and joined a similar platform under the name TikTok in 2018 (Dave 2018). The new merged app TikTok, known as Douyin in China, has reached a phenomenal status as the number one short video sharing app worldwide (Jing 2018).

From its launch in 2016 until 2018, TikTok has tripled its revenue and has been downloaded a total of 800 million times worldwide, with 80 million in the United States alone (Yurieff 2018). As of the first quarter of 2018, TikTok ranked first in downloads at 45.8 million, ahead of giants such as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook (Tung and Zhang 2018). By September 2018 it was the most downloaded app of any type in the United States (Jenke 2018).

TikTok videos are available to users who sign up for accounts and also to anyone who has a direct link to the video without being a user of the app. The platform allows users to record videos lasting typically from 15 to 60 seconds using lip synchronization to popular tracks, then share their videos with other users, who, in turn, are allowed to follow each other, react or comment on each other’s videos as well as duet together. In many cases, a hashtagged challenge is launched inviting users to share their short videos that address the topic of the challenge, thus linking them thematically.

TikTok hooked its shareability to major social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, gaining even more access. This has led to some real financial gains for the top users of the app. The success of Musical.ly users, called Musers to imply the creative drive of the app, has clearly migrated to the success of TikTok influencers as well (Influencer Marketing Hub, n.d.a). The top Musical.ly influencers earned up to $300,000 per sponsored post (Influencer Marketing Hub, n.d.b).

The short video platform’s widespread outreach has a noticeable societal impact. Such impact, however, did not go smoothly as it faced some criticism and even legal battles over its content. For instance, on July 3rd, 2018, court orders in Indonesia blocked TikTok due to what they deemed sexually explicit content (Saker 2018). Soon after, the ban was lifted when a team from TikTok met with the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and promised to censor specific content deemed sexually explicit (Mohan 2018). In China, authorities criticized insufficient privacy settings in the app as well as what was deemed as “vulgar” content (Jing 2018).

TikTok has raised some parental concerns due to a perceived focus on sexualized topics in comments as well as the popularity of songs that have sensual themes, a concern intensified with that the fact that the age limit was initially only 12 and then was raised to 13 (Chtayti 2018; Goovaerts 2018; TikTok 2019). In the US, parents took to websites such as Common Sense and Reddit to criticize TikTok’s low age limit while mature content is permissible (Common Sense Media, n.d.; Reddit, n.d.). The app even caused an uproar in France as evident in interviews by the French News Agency (AFP) with concerned parents of young users of the app (NDTV 2018).

Key Concepts

Playfulness and sexuality are focal concepts to this article. Paasonen (2018) defines playfulness as a mode, thus placing it as intentional behavior, a choice, and, perhaps just as important, a performance (537). This mode, Paasonen argues, pushes sexual identities in its bodily focus (538). In later stages of the evolution of the terms play and playfulness, she points out, both have come to denote exploration and even adult role playing (Ibid). This article uses the term play and its variations of playful and playfulness to denote practices that highlight the body, its image, and features, in an attempt to project, explore, and define sexual and sensual notions. Sexuality in this article is used to refer broadly to all elements pertaining to sensuality, sexual identity, and sexual behavior.

This study links playfulness to sexualization and argues that playfulness is more than pleasurable but is also cognitive. This article utilizes Paasonen’s feminist reference to sexuality. She sees it as a cognitive element. As a result, the role SNSs has in playfulness acquires a broader significance (538). As Paasonen goes on to say that playfulness is a form of openness, this article attempts to see SNSs as a new vehicle for such openness. Paasonen discusses instrumentality as crucial for sexuality and playfulness. It is possible to explore SNSs and social media at large as a digital form of instrumentality (541).

Central to this study as well is the notion of performativity of the body. In SNSs, the presentation of gender is linked to visual display of the body, especially among tweens. Such self-representation often reflects a stereotype of gender heavily underlining hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity (van Oosten, Vandenbosch and Peter 2017, 147). Self-representation intersects with playfulness when it is deemed sexy, a description achieved by suggestive posing for videos and photos posted on SNSs, which may include seductive performances such as sexy gazing, scantily dressed poses, all constituting sexualized appearance (Ibid). Posting on SNSs is specifically linked to adolescents as a source of gratification (Perloff 2014, 368), which is evident in the high frequency of SNSs usage among that age group (Lenhart et al. 2010, 22).

The terms performativity, representation and performance are interconnected in this article. Performativity includes performance as a form of self-representation that presents the body. Self-representation in this article, therefore, refers to how gendered and sexualized notions of the self are projected visually in social media. Studies reinforce the role such visuality plays in incorporating and resisting notions of gender and sexuality (De Ridder 2017, 2). This leads to an “ever-present worry of needing to perform oneself appropriately” (Clark 2005, 217). Webb and Temple (2015) argue that online videos offer a gender performance platform (648). Interestingly, they argue that women are even under more pressure to perform their gender on social network spaces without deviating from pre-existing gender expectations (649). Perhaps one of the reasons of the pervasiveness of digital performativity is the multiple roles play by individuals as digital access becomes increasingly individualized. It is stipulated that the roles of producer, consumer and distributor in digital media are often played by the same individual (Rutledge 2013, 48).

Linked to self-representation of the body in this article is the notion of beauty. Standards of beauty are narrowly defined and harshly applied by mainstream media and mostly adopted by social media (Caldeira and De Ridder 2017, 323). Such standards apply to both women and men, and while they focus more on women, perfectionist stereotypical images of beauty still strictly impose standards of masculinity on the appearance of men as well (Iovannone 2016; Siibak 2010, 419). Also connected to the notion of beauty is the use of the term body image in the article. It refers to the image formed by the presentation of the body as a visible element of the videos. The implications of the body image as a social construct of body worth are still there but are not the primary meaning of the term as it is used in this article.


In order to address the research question, the article engages with this relatively new territory of SNAs by analyzing TikTok sample videos, underlining features relevant to the study. Due to research ethical reasons, the sample videos have been included in the peer reviewed version of the article during the review process but have been removed from the public version. In order to adhere to ethical regulations that protect users’ privacy, this article adopts what I refer to as interpretative video content analysis. This method does not supply screenshots of the videos. Instead, it replaces them with descriptions of the content of each video within the context of self-representation as relevant to the study. This is followed by interpretations of the content. This methodology directly addresses the research question as it highlights how the features of the videos represent the notions of beauty and gender through the performance of the individuals in the videos.

The strategy used to employ content analysis of the videos relies on three elements. First, each video is divided into frames, based on the change of movement, facial expression, and/or attire of the individual in the video. Second, the analysis links such changes to aspects of representations, as each change signals a new category, such as attractiveness or unattractiveness. Third, the analysis draws attention to details that are recurrent in many videos as well as details that appear in few videos only, such as having more than one person in the video, which is less common than a single individual.

The analysis is user focused as it sheds light on the users’ perspective of the representations of the body and notions of gender and sexuality. The research examines videos from three popular TikTok challenges, #DontJudgeMeChallenge, #KarmaisaBitch, and #TheBoyChallenge, in order to contextualize the research question. The videos are selected randomly from the three challenges to offer a randomized sample. The names of the users of the sample videos are removed. Moreover, no screenshots of the videos are used in order to protect the users’ identities. Extensive descriptions depict in detail the relevant features of each video. The identities of the users are not significant to the research in themselves since the analysis focuses only on the relevance of the content to the research question.

I have started using Musical.ly in 2015, followed hundreds of Musers and witnessed the app icon change to TikTok after the merger of both apps. As a researcher and user, I was specifically interested in new challenges. As I watched thousands of videos with the intent of finding links among them, I noted common elements in each challenge. For this article, I chose sample videos that best represent the main features and commonalities I observed among the challenges.

Since the article deals with normative concepts derived from cultural and social understandings such as, “attractiveness”, “beauty” and “sexual appeal”, I am aware of the fact that this might have been affected by my personal and cultural stance, as is common to such concepts. However, for the purpose of this study, and in order to achieve a degree of impartiality, I aligned my understanding of these terms within the app content with the feedback the app received worldwide (detailed in the section titled “Short Video Apps”).

The Challenges

TikTok offers challenges. These are hashtagged trending videos that start a series of video responses from users. Among their most popular challenges is #DontJudgeMeChallenge, which was initiated in 2015 as a campaign based on a makeup tutorial YouTube video by Chicago-based makeup artist Em Ford titled “You Look Disgusting” (Ford 2015; Brad 2015). The campaign spread on social media networking sites such as Twitter and Instagram and gained wide attention as an attempt to combat body shaming, reaching 170,000 video submissions on Twitter. The campaign consisted of videos made by users that highlighted facial imperfections such as acne or scars, clearly and rather farcically added by makeup, only to be removed on camera to show a cleaner complexion. The campaign was sometimes criticized as self-defeating and propagating the very element of body shaming it purportedly targeted (Linshi 2015).

Another major challenge launched by TikTok is #KarmaisaBitch. This challenge builds on the comedic sense propagated by the now-extinct website Vine (Tiffany 2018). The name of the challenge is derived from Riverdale (Aguirre-Sacasa 2017), an American television soap opera, popular among teenagers. In one scene, Veronica Lodge, one of the characters played by American actress Camila Mendes, hears that her rivals have just had a car accident and would take months to recover. Her response is to smile mischievously as she slowly says, “Oh, well. Karma is a bitch.” In the TikTok challenge that adopted this phrase, videos rely on TikTok’s unique editing feature to personalize each user’s video. All videos circle around the theme of transformation where a character begins looking unattractive, says the phrase “Oh, well. Karam is a bitch,” then transforms into an attractive person, usually wearing makeup and/or wearing more stylish hair and clothes (Feldman 2018).

The third challenge, #TheBoyChallenge, features mainly female users who change their appearance to look like males. The videos negotiate a gendered binary of girl/boy transformation.

It is worth mentioning that the challenges are sometimes hashtagged under slightly different names. Some videos are cross-tagged, using more than one hashtag from the same category. For the first challenge, #DontJudgeMeChallenge is the original challenge hashtag and it garnered 430 million users by the 31st of January 2019. Other alternatives are #DontJudgeMe, with 95 million users, and #DontJudge with 75 million, all the way to alternatives such as #DontJudgeOthers (51 thousand), #DontJudgeByCover (217 thousand) or changed spellings such as #DontJudgeChallage [sic] which has 10 million. Similarly, #KarmaisaBitch is the largest challenge in its motif, with 145 million followers, and other alternatives such as #KarmaisaBitchChallenge which has 4 million followers and #OhWellKarmaisaBitch which has 86 thousand, among several other alternatives. #TheBoyChallenge is the original challenge in the third motif with 351 million followers. Some alternatives include #BoyofMyDreams or added nationality such as #GermanBoy or #PolishBoy, or simply #Boy, but all have a significantly smaller number of users.

The videos in the analysis are divided into two binaries. The first is an attractive/unattractive binary that includes video samples from #DontJudgeMeChallenge and #KarmaisaBitch challenges. The second is a gender binary that includes videos from #TheBoyChallenge.

1 The Attractive/Unattractive Binary

The #DontJudgeMeChallenge is a straightforward reference to value judgement based entirely on the body image. The challenge begins with the user projecting herself/himself as unattractive, then attempting to cover the camera in order to transform to a different attractive body image. The title of this challenge is more like a plea asking the public sphere to hold off judgement. It is interesting that the videos do not live up fully to the title. The very structure of the videos accepts and even seeks judgement. It only requests viewers to postpone their judgement until the users change their appearance to become more acceptable within normalized concepts of beauty. In asking for no judgement, however, the videos elicit judgement.

The #KarmaisaBitch is another reinforcement of value judgement based on the body image. This is evident as the makeover motif is central to the challenge. The original scene from the TV show is an expression of gloating over an unfortunate event that happens to one’s rival. The scene went viral on YouTube then became a popular meme before it became a TikTok challenge. In the challenge, a user initially looks at the screen, either plain looking or with unfavorable makeup like the #DontJudgeMeChallenge. The user then throws a bedsheet over, covering herself/himself. The video then cuts to a new scene where the same user has a makeover and fits the same criteria of beauty used in the #DontJudgeMeChallenge. What is added to the #KarmaisaBitch challenge is that the users lip sync the sentence, “Oh, well. Karma is a bitch,” from Riverdale (Aguirre-Sacasa 2017), followed by the transformation scene to the tune of Kreayshawn’s (2011) song “Gucci Gucci,” in a blunt socioeconomic reference.

It is worth mentioning that all the videos take place in what seem to be the users’ bedrooms. This adds an element of intimacy, enhancing playfulness. It is interesting that the videos’ background reveals an intersectionality of the private, as seen in the bedrooms, and the public, as the videos are posted publicly. For the purpose of the analysis, the video samples from both challenges are divided into the following categories: (1) Exaggerated features in the unattractive scene; (2) Body shaming; (3) Ableism; (4) Ageism; (5) Integrating gender; (6) Rejection; (7) Variation.

1.1 Exaggerated features in the unattractive scene

In the first scene from one standard #DontJudgeMeChallenge video, a close up of the face of a male user in what appears to be a bedroom shows that the user clearly uses a filter to exaggerate his features by making his nose and lips seem bigger, adds cream to his face, distorting his complexion, lets his hair hang down, and looks subdued. In the scene following the transformation, the filter is gone, revealing the user’s regular features. What is more, there is no cream or any other material distorting his complexion. His hair is styled with a bandana. Perhaps more importantly, his posture changes dramatically. The subdued look is replaced by a sexy, forward poise where he bends his head sideways, winks, and sticks his tongue out. The absence of the filter that distorts the facial features is replaced by another filter that releases pink hearts around the user’s face, thus creating a sexualized image that sharply contrasts to the initial one. The pink hearts can also serve as typical feminine representation of the male user.

The concept of exaggerated features reflects an interesting defense mechanism that pre-emptively distorts facial features beyond realistic measures, thus the real features of the user seem more attractive in comparison. The facial distortion is aided by performing a look, as the user not only presents what is deemed as unattractive features, but also performs unattractiveness with intentional gestures such as subdued looks, including closed eyes and pouting mouth. These are clearly contrasted in the attractive scene with the user, not only removing exaggerated features induced by technological aids such as filters, and by makeup, but also by performing sexiness. Such sexiness maybe evident here in the flirtatious attitude displayed by the user in front of the camera. The exaggerated unattractiveness, therefore, is a performance that creates distance between the user and the unattractive filter, thus acting as a self-asserting performance of sexual attractiveness.

1.2 Body shaming

In this example, a female user does not use a filter to distort her features. Instead, in order to strike an unattractive pose, she does not wear makeup, wears oversized clothes, pulls her hair back, wears eyeglasses. She stands in what seems to be a bedroom with flailed arms and stares blankly. In the transformation scene, the user wears makeup, a short t-shirt revealing midriff, and poses with her hair flowing and arms widespread, again in a traditionally sexy pose. The two scenes focus on the user’s belly, as she clearly stuffs her shirt in the first scene to seem as if she has a large waistline, then bares it in the second to show a small waistline, with an elaborate focus on an overweight version in the initial scene. The t-shirts in both scenes are also interesting. The first one has a kitten only, symbolizing innocence and infantilizing the desexualization of the first scene, but also laughing, almost as if it is laughing at the unexpecting audience. The second t-shirt has the word Queens written on it, emphasizing the power that accompanies the sexualized transformation.

Another user offers a male version of the body weight motif. He poses bare chested in a bedroom in both scenes. In the first one, he has a protruding belly that he is rubbing, drawing attention to it. In the second scene, he sucks in his belly, showing off a muscular stomach, flaunting the stereotypical six pack abs that are often associated with male sexual appeal. He shifts his pose and smiles confidently as well. It is interesting that this video is among the few videos by male users that focuses on a complete body image, as most videos seem to follow what Siibak (2010) terms as faceism, a focus on the face of male models in advertising trends (408).

Both videos equate body shape and specifically body weight with sexual attractiveness. There is a focus on belly size in both videos, a stereotypical simplification of negative body images. The bare-chested male video corresponds to the female bare midriff video, using the same focal point to reflect hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity at the same time. The users both perform gestures that accentuate their midsection, whether in the female user’s case by flailing her arms or in the male user’s case by directly holding his belly. Facial expressions also change with the body transformation, showing a smile in the second scene, thus correlating pleasure and joy with a sexualized stereotypical body image.

1.3 Ageism

Another variation on the binary of ugly and beautiful is age. In one video, the first scene shows a young man and a child, who both panic as, via filter, they notice that their hair is grey and their faces have wrinkles, indicating old age. Their terrified reaction mimics clearly fear of aging. In the transformation scene, both users are young. Their image is complimented with other features. In the first image, the young man in his older version is wearing a sleeveless shirt, with grey hair and wrinkled face. In the second, he is a young man, wearing a dark shirt on top, implying a more professional look as opposed, perhaps, to a stereotype of retired men in a sleeveless flannel. What is more, in the second image, both users not only have dark hair, but they have their hair styled and coiffed. As a result, a sexualized look reinforced by a wink and a smirk, distinguishes the second image.

The exaggerated facial expression of panic at the aged version reflects the negative space occupied by old age. The video stabilizes the same pose for both individuals, thus focusing attention on the two main changes in the second scene: signs of aging and expressions of panic, therefore linking them together.

On a similar note, another video employs an interesting twist using age as well. The first scene features an older man, with no makeup or filters, who is standing in a rather subdued manner. The transformation scene, instead of using the same user with makeup or filters, features a different user altogether. This second user is a young individual who stands with the stereotypical confidence seen in the other videos. He has a noticeable resemblance to the first man, implying he might be his son. The resemblance in the facial features of the older and young users is countered by the contrast in their poses, which elaborates a more energetic and more attractive pose struck by the younger user. The value judging here is perhaps evident in implying that old age is unattractive.

Physical movement is significant in this video. The hand gestures given by the younger user are parallel to his smile. This indicates an empowered stance, clearly opposed to the older user’s pose which is almost expressionless. The physical movement, then, reinforces the perspective of youth being lively, or even alive, while old age is equated with lack of movement, and, in that sense, lifelessness.

1.4 Ableism

The sample video for this category follows the same steps but adds a slight variation that is quite interesting. In the unattractive version, the hair, complexion, and posture of the user are compromised in a closeup as always. In addition, however, the user is seen holding a respiratory inhaler. The reference to ill health in the video adds health as an attribute to sexual appeal. In the transformation version, the stereotypical elements of hair, complexion, and poise are altered to reveal not only a self-confident user with the usual bold gaze facing the viewer, but also emphasize health as the user is no longer hunched forward and is not holding an inhaler.

In the health-related video, other attributes to sexual attractiveness are emphasized. In the first unattractive scene, the user is wearing eyeglasses, which he removes in the second scene. This underlines the stereotypical image of nerdiness as desexualized, as eyeglasses have a long-standing association with bookishness. The role of health in sexiness is interestingly restricted to physical health, highlighting the visibility of health, and foregrounding it as a primarily societal body image that overshadows its understanding as a personal condition.

1.5 Integrating gender

An interesting and less common play on gender in the #DontJudgeMeChallenge is introduced in a video that has an interesting twist. In the unattractive version, we see the expected face in closeup covered with pimples, a painted unibrow, exaggerated facial expressions, and a mop of hair. The user’s unattractive character wears eyeglasses, which is in line with the negative portrayal of physical weaknesses as weaker eyesight here is portrayed as a sign of ugliness. A new feature is added here, as a moustache and beard are also painted on the user’s face. The gender twist occurs as the transformed user in the second scene is revealed as a woman. Not only do the stereotypical features of complexion, facial expressions, hair, or even eyeglasses change, but also the user’s gender changes. The first masculine image is replaced by a female image. The transformed image is clearly sexualized, with a hazy hue added and the user rolling out her tongue and posing in a traditional sexy poise. It is worth noting that this video selected the stereotypical use of makeup to emphasize a notion of attractiveness as visible, manufactured, and sexualized.

The user intentionally displays mock behavioral change. In the initial masculinized unattractive scene, aggressiveness is emphasized as opposed to the subdued and seductive feminized pose in the second scene paired with a cynical smile. Sexiness, therefore, is associated with beauty. In addition to behavior, facial features are exaggerated in the negative body image, using makeup to add pimples. A medical condition, in this case acne is branded as unattractive. A hint of ableism is, therefore, inherent to some degrees in the process.

1.6 Rejection

One video shows two users performing a short skit. This is the only video that takes place in what seems to be a living room rather than the bedrooms we have in all the other videos. A man and a woman play a couple. The man is sitting on a couch, pretending to be too busy with his mobile phone to pay attention to the woman, sitting at his feet and begging with a hand gesture for his attention. In the second scene, the woman gets a makeover, and is now the one sitting in an aloof pose on the sofa while the man is the one on his knees on the floor raising his arms in the pleading gesture. It is worth noting how, despite seemingly empowering the female partner, the video still reinforces heterosexual norms of gender roles, as the woman only manages to earn the man’s attention when she achieves sexualized appearance.

In the couple’s video sample, the center of power is attention, which is also sexualized. The video feminizes the source of attention by focusing on stereotypical hyperfemininity, as the female partner wears a dress and long hair in the attractive scene. An interesting detail here is the sunglasses. The person sitting on the couch and ignoring the attention-seeking partner is wearing fashionable sunglasses in both scenes, whether it is the male in the first scene or the female in the second. This is a clear reference to the significance of visibility and communal approval which rests on body image. The visual aspect is emphasized by hiding the eyes of the partner whose attention is sought, thus underlining that it is the sexualized body image that is sought. The video asserts that the body needs to be seen in order to be acknowledged.

1.7 Variation

Variation in one video is worth examining where the focus is not on a person but on a drawing. The background here is not a room but a piece of paper. The initial scene shows only a hand drawing an unimpressive stick figure face. In the second scene, a fully drawn portrait in Japanese manga style fills the screen. Interestingly, it is the character in the drawing who has the stereotypical sexy pose, complete with dangling earrings and stylish hair. Replacing a human body with two variations of drawing styles, an unattractive stick figure and the other an attractive well-executed drawing, reduces body image to a created project, thus emphasizing its performativity and projectability.

It is possible to see this video as a reflection on the process behind the challenge. It epitomizes the performativity of the visual body image and highlights the desexualized oversimplified aspect of the first scene as opposed to the second scene. It is interesting to see in this video how the artist is reproducing what Abidin (2016) refers to in her study of pastiching Asian cuteness as a blend of performative cuteness with sensuality (38).

2 The Gender Binary

#TheBoyChallenge is a seemingly simple gender transformation. A typical video in this challenge begins with a teenage female user who puts her head down or looks away then comes back with her hair covered, usually by a hooded sweater, and looks like a teenage male. Variations on this theme all tackle the intersectionality of the body image and gender as a performance. Moreover, users still attempt a sexy pose, while impersonating a male, thus performing sexiness in a different gender, which highlights the role of the body in presenting not only gender but sexual appeal as well. The video samples are analyzed under the following categories: (1) Clothed transformation; (2) Non-clothed transformation; (3) Witness.

2.1 Clothed transformation

In one typical video in #TheBoyChallenge, the user stands in a bedroom and shows the viewers a hairband, then turns around, hides her head, and when she turns back, she looks like a teenage male in a hooded sweater. She then performs a stereotypical teenage male seductive pose, making a fist with the three middle fingers while sticking out the thumb and little finger of her hand, perhaps alluding to the shaka hand gesture, normally viewed as “chill” or “cool” gesture that indicates a non-committal laid back attitude.

The key to the clothed transformation video is to reinforce the superficiality of the visibility of gender binaries. If transforming from the male to female image relies on rolling up a user’s hair and pulling up a sweater’s hood, then the entire visual aspect of gender is reduced to a performed body image. An interesting component of the clothed transformation video is the emphatic gestures performed by the female user to mock stereotypical masculine sexiness, only adding to the visual level of gender performance.

2.2 Non-clothed transformation

One of the interesting variations of the challenge does not use clothing and hair but uses facial makeup to change the user’s gender. In this video, there is a closeup on the user’s face lying on a pillow on a bed. The user hides half their face, revealing a female’s face, only to turn around and cover the female face, revealing the other side of the face as a male’s face. The side meant to indicate a male has a moustache and a stubble beard painted on the face, whereas the side meant to represent a female has long eyelashes and lipstick. The user is bare-shouldered, and no clothes are shown. A birthmark on the shoulder is shown in both the female and male scenes, indicating that the male and female faces belong to the same person. The video puts emphasis on the body image that relies on natural facial features and the absence of clothes intensifies such focus.

Going beyond the clothed version of the challenge, this video argues that the binaries are, almost literally, skin deep, but also emphasize the focus on the performance of the body image as central to the communicated perception of gender.

2.3 Witness

In the duo videos in #TheBoyChallenge, the user has an audience witnessing the transformation and showing disbelief. In one video, the screen is split. Both parts of the split screen seem to be taken in a bedroom. A male user eagerly watches a female user with long hair in the first scene. In the transformation scene, the female user turns around, simply covers her hair with her sweater’s hood, then turns to face the camera looking like a male. The male user covers his mouth, wide-eyed with a dropping jaw as if in shock as he watches her transformation.

The duo challenge shifts attention to the viewer as much as to the user. By splitting the screen between the transforming user and the watching viewer, the videos underline the performativity of the gender binary. The transformation is done for an audience, not for its own sake. While the structure of all videos assumes a viewer, as the users are facing the camera, the duo videos create a second layer where we, the actual viewers, get a full opportunity to view how other viewers like us react to the transformation. The duo video structure is a commentary on the communal role we as viewers play in the performativity of the body image to construct a gender binary.


The video samples discussed in the attractive/unattractive binary section show a knowledge of the stereotypes of beauty and hence present some recurrent features; first, the user intentionally displays mock behavioral change, from subdued and meek in the first scene to confident and sexy in the second scene. Sexiness, therefore, is associated with beauty and openness. Second, facial features are exaggerated in the negative body image, using makeup or app filters. Third, medical conditions, from acne to more serious diseases implied, are branded as unattractive. A hint of ableism is, therefore, inherent to some degrees in the process. Fourth, old age is also seen as detrimental to beauty which can be seen as a form of ableism as well. Fifth, body shaming was hinted at more than once as users, both females and males, pretended to be overweight in the initial scene in some video samples. Sixth, there was a clearer emphasis on relationships in bringing two individuals in the videos.

Videos presented to discuss the gender binary share several features that characterize the users’ perspectives on the role of the body image in gender presentation. First, for most of the videos, a simple clothing item and a hairstyle are enough to perform a gender visual appearance. This is a clear statement from the users that they perceive the visual attributes of gender as no more than a performance of the body that carries little weight. Their videos, therefore, point out that they view the visibility of gender as a pure construct of representing a body image. Even the videos relying on makeup deliver a similar message, however more potent, that removable and changeable facial makeup can influence the visual characteristics attributed to gender. Second, in the duo videos, the use of witnesses, almost in a voyeuristic sense, can be seen as a reference to societal monitoring of gender binaries. By showing a mock-surprised audience, the duo videos reflect the users’ critique of the lack of depth, and even shallowness, of the communal perspective of gender binaries and boundaries that can be easily changed by the users.

An important aspect relevant to the discussion in the current paper is value judgement. The images presented in the videos of the three challenges consistently posit essentialist norms of beauty and gender that are either accepted or challenged but are held as constant and fixed criteria. Such value judgement is formed by binary presentations of bad and good, ugly and beautiful, thus constructing a binary hierarchy (De Ridder 2017, 1). For instance, a video is divided into two major scenes. The first scene presents the user in one state, followed by another scene that offers a drastic change to the user’s gendered and/or sexualized body image. In #DontJudgeMeChallenge and #KarmaisaBitch, the initial scene shows the user with makeup that renders her or him presumably unattractive. An intercepting scene usually shows how the user fails to transform from unattractive to beautiful, pretending to briefly panic, then, after trying again, the final scene shows how the user transforms successfully into an attractive female or male, accentuating the new image with sexiness. The transitional scene, which can be a repeated mock-attempt at transforming before the final successful attempt echoes the need for approval that characterizes online self-representation, as “different ‘performances’ need to be modified according to the received feedback.” (Clark 2005, 217).

The digitally mediated value judgements associated with these videos ascribe to a normative heterosexualised performances of feminine and masculine desirability (Ringrose et al. 2013, 305). Such heterosuxalised context resulted in normalizing the sexualization of the female body (Evans, Riley and Shankar 2010, 123). Similarly, men present their body image as sexualized and romantic objects, influenced by stereotypical visual representation of masculinity on social media (Siibak 2010, 405). In his study of constructing masculinity in social networks, Siibak (2010) argues that posing techniques by users in social networks are influenced by advertising trends (419). This is evident in the videos in the TikTok challenges discussed here for both men and women. In all videos, sexy poses and seductive looks involve looking at the camera as opposed to subdued looks or even closed eyes.

Stereotypical visual constructs of the body, therefore, contribute significantly to the hierarchical binary value judgement system of bad and good body image. Traditional beauty ideals are mediatized to specifically favor flawless facial features, complexion, hair, and figure (Engeln-Maddox 2006, 259). In a relatively early study by Groesz, Levine and Murnen (2002), the findings confirm the crucial role that representations of thin body images on media had on body satisfaction (13). The impact of the mediatized body image has persisted into the digital media. The thin body image evolved into an obsession with the athletically fit body image. This has been emphasized, for instance, in a study of the hashtag #fitspiration, a portmanteau of the words ‘fit’ and ‘inspiration’ (Tiggmann and Zaccardo 2018). Furthermore, in another study of self-objectification of women’s body image in Instagram, Fardouly, Willburger and Vartanian (2018) discuss the role fitspiration plays in defining the hard-to-attain body image (1382). Such fixation results in marginalizing ageing and disabled individuals (Tiidenberg and Gómez Cruz. 2015, 79).

A Glimpse into User Perspective

The three TikTok challenges, #DontJudgeMeChallenge, #KarmaisaBitch, and #TheBoyChallenge offer a glimpse into the perspective that users of TikTok, the prime short video sharing app and a major SNA platform, may adopt about the role of the body image and issues of gender and sexuality. Both are viewed as products of the performance of the body, a self-representation that can be altered and shaped to conform to stereotypical notions of beauty, masculinity and femininity. Even while challenging such norms, the users clearly acknowledge their existence, showing an awareness of the imposed normative images of sexiness that define beauty and a gender binary that still shapes visual gender switching.

The variations of the videos range between changing the order of gender, introducing witnesses, and replacing human participants with drawings for example. A recurrent motif that favors youth, health, and a fit body runs through several videos, subscribing to traditional, usually heterosexual norms of beauty. Similarly, a recurrent motif of short hair for males and makeup and long hair for females reflects the stereotypes of a binary gender body image that accentuates hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity.

This study points out that, as SNA offers opportunities of sharing individualized short videos, it is a potent platform for understanding the role of the body image on shaping notions of beauty and gender. What is more, it has the potential to change those roles as it is shared and as the variations introduced may be reinforced.



All links verified 26.10.2019.

Films and series

Riverdale. Developed by: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, starring: K. J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes. Berlanti Productions; Archie Comics Publications; CBS Television Studios; Warner Bros. Television; Canada Film Capital, DVD. 2017.


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Jenke, Tyler. 2018. “TikTok is Fast Becoming the Most Popular App in the World.” The Industry Observer, November 4. https://theindustryobserver.thebrag.com/tik-tok-most-popular-app/.

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Reddit. n.d. “What’s up with Everyone Hating the App TikTok?” Accessed February 8, 2019. https://www.reddit.com/r/OutOfTheLoop/comments/9pn9ns/whats_up_with_everyone_hating_the_app_tik_tok/.

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Tiffany, Kaitlyn. 2018. “The Best Memes are Nonsense and I love ‘Karma is a Bitch.’” The Verge, January 26. https://www.theverge.com/tldr/2018/1/26/16937712/karma-is-a-bitch-riverdale-kreayshawn-meme.

TikTok. 2019. “Terms of Service.” Accessed February 21. https://www.tiktok.com/en/terms-of-use.

Tung, Hans and Zara Zhang. 2018. “8 Lessons from the Rise of Douyin (TikTok).” GGV Capital, June 15. https://hans.vc/douyin-tik-tok/.

News Articles

Abidin, Crystal. 2016. Agentic cute (^.^): Pastiching East Asian cute in Influencer commerce. East Asian Journal of Popular Culture 2 (1): 33-47. doi: 10.1386/eapc.2.1.33_1.

Carson, Biz. 2016. “How a Failed Education Startup Turned into Musical.ly, the Most Popular App You’ve Probably Never Heard of.” Business Insider, May 28. https://www.businessinsider.my/what-is-musically-2016-5/.

Dave, Paresh. 2018. “China’s Bytedance Scrubs Muscial.ly Brand in Favor of TikTok.” Reuters, August 2. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bytedance-musically/chinas-bytedance-scrubs-musically-brand-in-favor-of-tiktok-idUSKBN1KN0BW.

Feldman, Brian. 2018. “‘Karma’s a Bitch’ is the Rare Meme Combining Riverdale and Kreayshawn.” New York Magazine, January 26. http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/01/what-is-the-karmas-a-bitch-meme.html.

Jing, Meng. 2018. “Most Downloaded IPhone App TikTok Hits 150 Million Daily Users in China, Marking Major Milestone.” South China Morning Post, June 14. https://www.scmp.com/tech/social-gadgets/article/2150528/most-popular-iphone-app-tik-tok-hits-150-million-daily-users.

Linshi, Jack. 2015. “Here’s How the ’Don’t Judge Challenge’ Totally Backfired.” Time, July 8. http://time.com/3948968/dont-judge-challenge/.

Mohan, Vyas, ed. 2018. “Indonesia Overturns Ban on Chinese Video App TikTok.” Reuters, July 11. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-bytedance/indonesia-overturns-ban-on-chinese-video-app-tik-tok-idUSKBN1K10A0.

Sarkar, Himani, ed. 2018. “Indoniseia Band Chinese Video App Tik Tok for ‘Inappropriate Content.’” Reuters, July 4.

Yurieff, Kaya. 2018. “TikTok is the Latest Social Network Sensation.” CNN Business, November 21. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/11/21/tech/tiktok-app/index.html.


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Cirucci, Angela. M. 2018. “Facebook and Unintentional Celebrification” In Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame, edited by Crystal Abidin and Megan Lindsay Brown, 33–46. Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited.

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Engeln-Maddox, Renee. 2006. “Buying a Beauty Standard or Dreaming of a New Life? Expectations Associated with Media Ideals.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30 (3): 258–266. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00294.x.

Evans, Adrienne, Sarah Riley and Avi Shankar. 2010. “Technologies of Sexiness: Theorizing Women’s Engagement in the Sexualization of Culture.” Feminism & Psychology 20 (1): 114–131. doi: 10.1177/0959353509351854.

Fardouly, Jasmine, Brydie K Willburger, and Lenny R Vartanian. 2018. “Instagram Use and Young Women’s Body Image Concerns and Self-Objectification: Testing Mediational Pathways.” New Media & Society 20 (4): 1380–1395. doi:10.1177/1461444817694499.

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1–2/2019 WiderScreen 22 (1–2)

The Pro Strats of Healsluts: Overwatch, Sexuality, and Perverting the Mechanics of Play

Gender Studies, Healslut, Overwatch, performativity, play, Queer Studies, sexuality

Kyle Bohunicky
kbohunicky [a] ufl.edu
Digital Worlds Institute
University of Florida

Jordan Youngblood
youngbloodj [a] easternct.edu
English and New Media Studies Departments
Eastern Connecticut State University

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Bohunicky, Kyle, and Jordan Youngblood. 2019. ”The Pro Strats of Healsluts: Overwatch, Sexuality, and Perverting the Mechanics of Play”. WiderScreen 22 (1-2). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2019-1-2/the-pro-strats-of-healsluts-overwatch-sexuality-and-perverting-the-mechanics-of-play/

Printable PDF version

Obey or play? In digital games, sex is often confined by medial references and mechanical impositions. Tanya Krzywinska, in “The Strange Case of the Misappearance of Sex in Video Games” (2015), explains that games often obscure representations of sex and minimize playing sex. Game series like Mass Effect (2007 – 2017) use cinematic techniques such as the fade to black to allude to the climax to come, whereas games like Playboy: The Mansion (2005) abstract sex into the act of two characters comically bouncing on each other. And when sex is featured as something for players to perform, it often emerges as a mini-game in which the play is restricted by a series of button inputs, from its origins in the 1990 bedroom of Virtual Valerie (1990) to the more recent versions seen in the God of War (2005 – 2018) games until 2010. Far from an emergent, improvisational process, sexual actions in video games feel decidedly assembled and constructed; consider the Second Life (2003) universe, where sexual positions are purchasable encoded processes within “pose balls” that repeat the same action, over and over again.

Yet despite procedural and medial impositions designed to control sexual play in digital games, fan communities have found their own ways to erotically engage within—and outside—the game, playing out their fantasies via emergent mechanics, in-game behavior, fan art, roleplaying, and fanfiction. Building upon prior work from writers like Jenny Sundén exploring how a queer relationship within and outside World of Warcraft (2004) responded and implemented mechanics of play (2012), or Stephen Greer’s analysis of how to “play queer” within digital worlds (2013), this paper focuses on one such community surrounding the game Overwatch (2016), a competitive team-based shooter. While Overwatch has cultivated a massive fan community who are drawn to its diverse and non-normative characters, Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s developer, has been decidedly coy about the sexualities (and sexual habits) of its cast, making only a few nods via comics and other supplemental media to their love lives. As a Teen-rated cartoonish shooter meant to welcome the maximum number of consumers, little within its designed world of play would seem to acknowledge sex.

In the short story “Bastet” (2019), written by Michael Chu and officially commissioned by Blizzard Entertainment, a specter follows Jack Morrison. Better known to the multiplayer first-person shooter Overwatch’s player community as “Soldier 76,” Morrison is one of the game’s lead protagonists and features prominently in the game lore. Easy to learn and difficult to master, Morrison is a well-rounded offensive player whose balance makes him a common starting character for new players, and he is also featured as the first playable character that players use in the tutorial to learn Overwatch’s mechanics and gameplay. His storyline focuses upon his tenure as commander of the titular futuristic government defense agency, eventually leading to its collapse and Morrison’s apparent demise. Five years after his funeral, Morrison returns as a mysterious figure now known only as Soldier 76, who begins carrying out nonviolent raids on decommissioned Overwatch facilities.

It would seem that 76 might serve as the series’ ghost, both haunted by amorphous neophytes and also haunting former allies and enemies who compose Overwatch’s playable cast. Yet 76 is not without his own phantoms. As we learn in “Bastet,” the specter of Morrison still lingers, and with him, 76’s unrealized future with a man named Vincent. Over the course of the story, 76 is wounded and forced into hiding along his former squadmate Ana; during this time, the two reminisce over photos of Overwatch and the relationships lost along the way. In one photo, illustrated for the story, Morrison is depicted with his arm around another man. He reflects:

“Vincent deserved a happier life than the one I could give him.” Jack sighed. “We both knew that I could never put anything above my duty. Everything I fought for was to protect people like him… That’s the sacrifice I made.”

“Relationships don’t work out so well for us, do they?” Ana said, unconsciously running her thumb over where her wedding ring used to be. (12)

The specter of Soldier 76’s sexuality looms large in these lines, signified through the juxtaposition of Ana’s phantom wedding band and the absence created by Morrison’s commitment to Overwatch and the kinships forged in the throes of battle. Morrison’s ghost reminds Soldier 76 and Ana of everything sacrificed in the name of duty, yet on a larger intertextual level, it may potentially raise an ethical conundrum for Overwatch’s players: what aspects of ourselves do we sacrifice in engaging with the game?

Like Ana and Soldier 76, who find their identities at odds with their actions, Overwatch struggles with a strong case of dissonance between player action and its characters’ narrative identity. Defined by Clint Hocking as “ludonarrative dissonance” (2007), we can observe this effect at work in the in-game environments, which are sites where the Overwatch’s cast suffered significant traumas and triumphs. Rather than taking on the emotional and personal resonance we might expect a battlefield to have for someone who once fought and watched friends die there, these spaces are reduced to mere playgrounds for gleefully gibbing other players during game sessions. Team building runs into similar conflicts. Players can freely play as sworn enemies like Reaper and Soldier 76 on the same team despite the impossibility of such a situation within the game narrative (Ramée 2016). Most importantly for this article, the romantic and sexual identities of the game’s characters endure a similar dissonance. While Overwatch features unlockable costumes and voice lines that gesture loosely towards characters’ sexuality, one of the few being the characters Reinhardt and Ana’s flirtatious pre-game dialogue, these traces of sexuality simply vanish during gameplay. Where Reinhardt and Ana might coyly banter during one match, in the next they could be found driving bullet and hammer into the other’s brain. In short, little, if any, options exist within Overwatch for characters or players to express or play their sexuality regardless of its presence within the game narrative.

This division between gameplay and sexuality has been commented on and enacted by Overwatch’s design team. Remarking on his apprehension about Overwatch porn in an interview with Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson (2016), game director and lead designer Jeff Kaplan commented on the place of pornography within Overwatch fandom, “Nobody’s trying to step on anybody’s freedom of speech or any of that, like I totally love people’s creative expression. I would just say just be mindful that there are a lot of kids who are engaged with the franchise and as long as things are kept sort of away from them, that’s what’s important.” While keeping sexual content out of a game to broaden its potential audience might pass as a savvy business move, the issue is complicated by Blizzard’s decision to issue cease-and-desist orders to adult content creators (Chalk 2017). One order in particular was sent to the online magazine “Playwatch,” which featured “articles, interviews with real-life cosplayers, and yeah, loads of horny fan art…A lot of it was silly—the multi-page interview with Bastion is nothing but beeps and boops—but it also included coverage of the November Symmetra buff, top Hero picks and player rankings for the month, an interview with Jannetincosplay, and even a Spanish-language article about Sombra.” Playwatch, which specifically targeted an adult audience with campy humor and fanmade content akin to that found on websites like DeviantArt, seems a curious case as it falls outside of Kaplan’s alleged concerns with open displays of sexuality in the Overwatch universe.

Possibly, then, it was Playwatch’s decision to combine sexuality with gameplay that made it a target because the magazine violated the Overwatch team’s vision of “exclusive inclusivity.” Kaplan explains that “we’ve always wanted Overwatch to be a very inclusive universe…that inclusivity spans from game play styles, some people like to play support, some people like to play DPS, to genders and body types and different nationalities” (Kaplan). In his description, as with Overwatch itself, there is an apparent division between gameplay and representation, where “inclusivity spans from game play styles… to genders and body types and different nationalities.” Kaplan’s phrasing, compounded by Blizzard’s legal actions, thus divides gameplay from sexuality and embodiment. In Overwatch players can choose their gameplay style and their avatar, but the idea of those elements connecting to sexuality within the space of an Overwatch match itself are things meant to be “sort of kept away,” in a manner of speaking.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, then, one of the few ways in which Overwatch manages to suture players’ experience of gameplay and its characters’ narrative experience is through its division of sexuality and play–a decision that has led many players to question, and “Bastet” to possibly attempt to address, why the sexual identity of its characters matters. We might find answers to this question in the grieving expressed by Ana and Soldier 76 over their decision to play characters in Overwatch’s narrative universe who are unable to summon anything but the ghostly memory their former partnerships. As Chu tweeted following the publication of “Bastet,” “Jack and Vincent were in a romantic relationship many years ago” (2019); his use of past tense and the story’s implication that duty comes before sexuality should, for many players, encourage questions about the place of their own sexuality in Overwatch. In many ways, Ana and Morrison are mirrors held up to the player, and their grief can be read as a troubling reflection of the emotional experience of having to choose between sexuality or gameplay in Overwatch. Ana and Soldier 76 can either play the game of Overwatch, or they can take up their former relationships, but they cannot do both. Must players make the same choice? Can combat co-exist alongside sexuality?

Such tensions are not unusual among fans who identify as part of marginalized communities seeking to find a space for themselves among the texts they love; yet such a challenge does not close off possibilities but rather opens unexpected doors to create, produce, and push back against systems that render such identities invisible. Our article explores a thriving counterculture within the Overwatch player community called “healsluts.” The healslut community is an ongoing, evolving space of sexual play that doesn’t end when the round is over. Despite Blizzard and its development team’s best efforts at divorcing gameplay and sexuality, healslutting repurposes Overwatch and its mechanics into a space for sexual play. We align the actions of the healslut community with acts of creative resistant fandom such as fanfiction, which—as Christine Handley’s (2012) examination of fan fiction within the Star Wars community suggests—allows fans to not pejoratively “poach” content, but provide a powerful “rejoinder” to it (98). The healslut community, in essence, performs an overall action of what J.L Barnes (2015) deems “imaginative resistance” that exists within fandoms, particularly when there appears to be a schism between what characters are claimed to be and what they actually do in the text (79).

Healslutting invites players to deploy elements of BDSM kink and sexuality not merely within the vocabulary and design of the game, but also in a communal paratext surrounding the game involving forums, voice chat, and viral fan-designed images. Kishonna L. Gray (2015) notes the power of these larger paratextual networks via social media and other online platforms as a way for resisting “masculine-normative hegemonic fandom” in video games, allowing communities like women of color to push back against dominant narratives and create spaces inclusive of their identities (86). Here, avenues like Reddit, Twitter, and—until very recently—Tumblr allow for healsluts to connect, commiserate, and adopt practices that allow for in-game communication. These players actively repurpose and “pervert” Overwatch’s mechanics, creating a system of erotic roles and a shared community discourse which allows for pushing back against both the sterilized forms of sexuality that games offer and the means through which designers attempt to discipline sexuality. In so doing, we hope to continue the work set forth by Bo Ruberg and Amanda Phillips (2018) in their call for scholars to more closely explore acts of resistance in games in connection with gender and sexuality which “challenge norms” and “undermine dominant structures of power”—here, in part, by embracing one’s dominant (or submissive) playful side. The healslut community offers an example to us in game studies as to how to productively and provocatively find pleasure in unexpected places, and how we might continue to align acts of gameplay as not just reflecting, but producing resistant identities.

An Overview of Overwatch

Through a critical examination of player practices within the healslut community, specifically based on the subreddit r/HealSluts (2019), our study contributes to the growing conversation in queer- and gender-based game studies about the role of sexuality in digital games, and specifically on Overwatch itself. The limited amount of scholarly material on Overwatch tends to focus on its roles within the world of e-sports or spectator gaming, such as Mark Johnson and Jamie Woodcock’s (2018) analysis of Twitch noting that “particular streamers have risen to rapid success on the back of such games as Warframe (2013), Super Mario Maker (2015), and Overwatch (2016), often having been broadcasting these games since the day they were released” (7). More intriguing is the early line of inquiry offered at the end of Toby Hopp and Jolene Fisher’s (2017) attempt to link gender and genre together in the pleasure playing a first-person shooter; contrasting the game to titles like Halo (2001) and Call of Duty (2003), the authors claim “the title Overwatch (released by Blizzard in 2016) is substantially more popular among female gamers than titles in popular FPS franchises… Such engagement inconsistencies may be due to differences in the games’ competitive environment, storyline dynamics, and/or avatar characteristics” (356). Finally, Maria Ruotsalainen and Usva Friman’s (2018) research recognizes the multiple player imaginaries attached to Overwatch’s characters—particularly the prevalent stereotype that “all women play Mercy,” a popular healer character within the game, as one such imaginary invented by the community. Routsalainen and Friman explain that this imaginary within the community prominently reads Mercy’s players “as feminine and boosted, accessing the gamespace through others (males) boosting them,” revealing an implicit gendering that comes with the choice of character. (These binarized gender dynamics, ironically, become a central destabilizing aspect of the healslut community’s use of Mercy as its primary character; as this essay will explore, both male- and female-identified players turn to this “feminine,” supportive characterization as a subversively erotic element of play.) In these studies, Hopp and Fisher as well as Routsalainen and Friman tap into the lingering question of something being distinctive about Overwatch, a mix of its character design, possibilities of play, player imaginaries, and larger narrative opportunities which opens up something beyond the standard experience of a first-person shooter—that, perhaps, being the prospect of roleplaying.

First impressions of Overwatch often paint the game as a strictly team-based first-person shooter affair in which players can join a team of up to six other players and compete against another team in one of the game’s several modes, such as assault, escort, control, etc. Much of this is conveyed through the game modes, each of which features a distinct set of rules, play-styles, and objectives that players might encounter in a match. Escort, for example, is a gameplay mode built around a moving point called a “payload.” Players must collaborate with their teammates to defend and “push,” a term for moving the payload forward by standing on or nearby it, the payload until it reaches its goal in the opposing team’s base. Control, on the other hand, tasks a team with defending two to three specific areas on a map, which can be captured by the opposing team if they manage to stand on the area without being killed or moved off of the point.

Upon starting the game, however, the importance of playing a role quickly becomes apparent across at least three levels: communication, class, and character choice. Excluding the one versus one mode in Elimination, Overwatch is played almost entirely on teams of three or six. Victory in Overwatch’s modes depends on teamwork, and the game demands intensive collaboration among a majority of players. These pressures encourage players to collaborate with each other during game sessions via in-game text chat or third-party voice chat applications like Discord, making Overwatch a game that mixes in-game and out-of-game identities. Gameplay goes beyond the character that players choose and extends to aspects like players’ tone of voice, word choice, media sharing (for example, providing maps and other resources), and a cluster of other performances not strictly limited to the gamespace. Players are not just identified by who they play as, but how they embody those characters both through their gameplay within the game and in its backchannels while interacting with other players.

Take, for example, the Competitive Play setting, which adds a number of extra layers to the gameplay experience. Competitive Play is a high-risk, ranked gameplay setting designed to offer players a serious experience and encourage team- and skill-intensive playstyles. The setting is designed for players looking to break into Overwatch’s esports league on a professional level, and as a result, largely breeds a team-based version of what T.L. Taylor (2006) and Mia Consalvo (2007) respectively define as the “power gamer” whose gameplay experience is defined largely by mastery and victory. In Competitive Play, tempers run hot, voice comms are (ideally) supportive but uncompromisingly direct, and a single misplay can make the difference between platinum and gold rank for an entire team–the setting is explicitly designed for a specific type of player.

Quick Play, on the other hand, is a casual-friendly, unranked mode that offers a low-risk play experience. Without the victory-driven pressures of Competitive Play, Quick Play allows a variety of play styles to flourish–some of which are playful and lighthearted, while others are experimental and exploratory. Arcade, the final style, is designed entirely to support the latter play styles. In Arcade, players can find and create game modes not “officially” in the game such as one-shot-to-kill, zero gravity with Hanzo, the game’s longbow user. Whereas Competitive Play demands a high level of obedience to the formal rules of play, and Quick Play is a bit looser in its demands, Arcade allows players to invent their own rules entirely.

Thus, to say that Overwatch is a “team-based first-person shooter” radically reduces the layered complexity of its gameplay and player performances, as it potentially involves an ongoing process of communication and identity building through preferred play mode, style of play, text, voice, and even video feeds with other players. Tony Manninen’s “Interaction Forms and Communicative Actions in Multiplayer Games” (2003) identifies at least 12 different forms of play that facilitate the communicative and social aspects of digital games, many of which are necessary for players to be fluent in if they are to succeed in Overwatch. The player community has documented these aspects of gameplay in many of the player-produced strategy videos recorded to improve players’ skills. Whereas many of these videos recorded for other games focus on mechanical dexterity, the Overwatch videos focus on effective and collaborative communication skills–especially during intensely competitive matches. As YouTuber Dragonmar notes in their video “5 Minute Tips: Communication and Callouts, Talking like the Pros” (2016), “In my opinion, communication is by far one of the biggest separating factors between high level players and high level play and sort of that bottom tier play.” In addition to the key phrases that Dragonmar recommends players use during gameplay, much of the video is invested in identity building, talking players through the steps necessary to perform as a sociable player within the gamespace. Dragonmar states:

I know not everyone’s a people person, and it’s hard for some people to talk, but I personally have forced myself to say hello to everyone in every single match I go into, and I feel like there’s this psychological reasoning to it…it sort of builds like this trust and it makes them like me and it puts some weight on my opinions because I do sort of take that in-game leader role.

Unit Lost’s video “How Pros SHOTCALL! – Communication and Shotcalling Guide” (2017) provides similar tips designed to help players are able to enact the persona of professional players through both their gameplay and their personalities. Such lessons, while fulfilling a pragmatic need, also add an additional layer of roleplaying for the players themselves that goes beyond the character they choose to play as within the game itself.

Once players have crafted their communication persona, the next choice facing most players is their in-game embodiment that they will occupy for the match: that is to say, they need to pick a character to play as. Playable characters in the game, known as “heroes,” can be selected at any time before or during a match, and Overwatch currently features an expanding roster of 29 heroes. Characters are broken down into three main classes: Tank, Damage, and Support. Tank heroes typically serve as the team’s metaphorical shield. Equipped with a large amount of health and attack-negating skills, these heroes keep the pain away from the more vulnerable Damage and Support heroes. Many of their skills are designed to protect friendly players while controlling the opposing team. One such tank, the German armored fighter Reinhardt, has an ability called “Barrier Field” which is a giant, curved shield that covers Reinhardt and surrounding teammates, allowing him to escort other players through the opposing team’s fire. Similarly, the Russian bodybuilder Zarya’s “Projected Barrier” attaches a bubble shield to a distant teammate, allowing them to endure attacks without damage while powering up her own weapons with the absorbed energy from enemy shots.

Although many Tank heroes are slow and bulky protectors who are often easy targets, their presence is formidable and fatal if underestimated. Tanks can deal wide-ranging attacks debilitating many characters on the opposing team. The South Korean pro-gamer D.Va’s “Self-Destruct” launches her mech suit forward into a glowing ball of death for any enemy players in wide radius, while D.Va herself is ejected safely to the back. Alternatively, Australian insurrectionist Roadhog’s “Whole Hog” fires a barrage of shrapnel in a wide cone, allowing him to deal significant damage to a large group and push them back (often off of edges and cliffs to their demise). From patient protectors to hasty aggressors, tank gameplay thus allows players to adopt and express many different personalities through their gameplay. These personalities are added on to the communicative personas adopted in voice communication software, and this range of performed personalities can be found in each of the classes and nuanced even further through the specific styles of gameplay offered in the unique set of abilities offered by each character.

The traces of these gameplay-based expressions can be seen in the fan fiction produced by the Overwatch player community. Within the community, characters like D.Va and Soldier 76 are given names unique to the personalities embedded within their play styles. Soldier 76, for example, is often called “Dad” not because of his age, but rather because of the personality conveyed through his gameplay abilities. In many fan produced comics, Soldier 76 is often depicted providing other characters with their lunch, and he can be seen reminding them that he has “his eye on them,” both of which reference his in-game ability to place a healing beacon on the map and his ultimate which automatically locks his aim on enemy players. Similarly, Pharah is presented as “gremlin” D.Va’s mother who looks out for her by providing an aerial barrage of Mountain Dew. The interaction is a reference to the dynamic shared between D.Va, a tank who is often in the direct line of fire, and Pharah, an airborne attacker whose ultimate ability sends a rain of missiles over her teammates and onto the opposing team. The comic replaces missiles with Mountain Dew as a reference to jokes about gamers’ diets with D.Va positioned as Overwatch’s gamer.

While many of these comics serve as a visual and textual index of the range of expression and identity possible through each of Overwatch’s characters and classes, they also have served as a means for players to explore the largely absent depictions of kinship and relationships within the game. On the reddit thread, “Overwatch Question: Can someone post a Family Tree?,” VintageKD writes, “Mercy is the mother because her play style basically feels like babysitting. The children run off and get into trouble and you have to save them.” Much like Soldier 76’s position as “Dad” within the fan universe, Mercy’s play style influences her kinship with other characters within the universe. In addition to being depicted as “Mom,” however, Mercy is also depicted as Pharah’s lover with whom she raises their disobedient child D.Va. This representation, called the “Pharmercy,” has no connection to the game lore; instead, Pharmercy emerged from Pharah’s gameplay. As the Overwatch wiki (2019) explains, “While Pharah can stay fairly safe up in the air, she should not be without support. A common pair for Pharah is Mercy, who can boost her damage and heal her while staying with her in the air.” The sexual pairing of Pharah and Mercy is a response to and expression of this game performance, practicing what Darshana Jayemanne (2018) describes as “the way videogame performances generates bodies and renders them prone to volatility, transformation and seriality” (21). Overwatch’s fan community demonstrates that as players play, they actualize potential embodiments through the performative lexicon provided by the game. While fans have manifested these performative expressions in paratextual materials, the healslut community has explored their potential performance within Overwatch itself.

To suck their cocks, and to fill bars, all of it is one thing”: The /HealSluts community

With these topics in mind, the healslut community’s function within the world of Overwatch comes into view. In exploring how Overwatch’s central mechanics, rather than being thoroughly quarantined from sexuality, in fact take on and represent new eroticized meanings among players, it is crucial to take into account the digital spaces in which these meanings are defined, discussed, and ultimately deployed within the game’s field of play. Foremost among these spaces is r/HealSluts, a dedicated place of discussion (or “subreddit”) within the online message board/aggregator website Reddit. As a discourse community, the r/HealSluts subreddit currently (as of February 2019) has a base of roughly 29,000 subscribers. As taken from the subreddit’s “community details” section, it is a self-described “community filled with eager healers willing to do what they can for their team, *especially their dominant counterparts.* **Join us as we pervert the act of healing for fun!*” (“Healsluts: Perverting the act of healing for fun”). Far from a peripheral focus, the idea of “perverting” healing—of taking a seemingly benign gameplay act and giving it a sexual undertone—is sealed into the community’s header and sidebar description accompanying every view of the website.

Healslutting is decidedly not unique to Overwatch, as the community’s wiki and various threads list a variety of games and situations where this action already takes place or could take place in; consider the thread “Some less known games with slut potential,” where opening poster u/ToasterTroll (2018) lists series such as Fallout, Fire Emblem, and the Payday games as featuring mechanics with “slut potential for both healers and slutting in general.” A short collection of posts follow, with u/deathride58 (2018) in particular going into detail about everything from turning the force-feedback from music game Audiosurf into the commands for a vibrator to refusing to use certain healing commands in the first-person shooter Killing Floor 2 to provide a sub/dom relationship between teammates. u/deathride58’s final line serves as a sort of ethos for the entire community: “Any game can become a slut game if you or your dom(s) try hard enough.” Luke Winkie’s Kotaku article on the community (2016) similarly emphasizes this point, as “the beauty of healsluts is you can make anything—literally anything—part of the kink.” All gameplay mechanics serve as a potential outlet for perverse play, offering users the opportunity to engage in “slut” behavior regardless of intent or design from the game’s creators.

Linking to other player-driven activities which can twist or even openly disregard the apparent intent of a mechanic or structure, the community’s own wiki page titled “Why is this a thing?” describes healslutting as a sort of mod to reinject interest and pleasure into play. According to wiki writer u/LeviathansLust (2019), “[m]ost enjoy a game at it’s [sic] default, but others tend to try to enjoy their experience more and keep it from dulling out via mods. It’ll give it a new taste and you’ll be satisfied with the game for that much longer.” If BDSM practice itself is a type of “mod” to sexual practice between physical bodies, healslutting transfers that process of rethinking existing mechanics to reinvigorate the experience into the digital realm. Kent Aardse (2014) suggests that video games welcome this process due to their nature as digital objects, with players “always reminded that the site is fiction because of the uncanny valley. Bounded by the contract and rules set in place, masochists feel entirely safe engaging in S&M acts in a sanctioned game space, just as videogame players find a safe environment contained in the screen.” Such a recognition seems, to u/LeviathansLust, largely inevitable, as “when you take someone who enjoys video games and sexual stuff, you’ll fancy the idea of combining them in some way.” Yet while, as Aardse claims, there is a potential physical distance between the game and the player’s body, healslutting begins to collapse that distance, particularly with players encouraged to act upon their bodies during play in accordance with what happens in-game. There is no neat distinction between what one does inside and outside the game. What I do with my body in both locations feeds into an overall attitude and identity which is performed according to a variety of norms and expectations.

It is precisely this fuzzy boundary between game and not-game, between “real” and “unreal,” that seems to attract a number of users to healslutting. A striking number of threads on the board are created by individuals claiming that discovering healslutting provided insight into their sexual identity outside the game as well, or that what they typically believed was “outside” of video games could be integrated in surprising ways. One such example comes from user u/its_onyx (2019), detailing in a thread titled “I Met My LDR Daddy” how their first physical BDSM relationship emerged from participating in the r/HealSluts community Discord (a voice and text chat app popular among players). The relationship began initially as exploring dom/sub play within games, then shifted to voice chat, then finally into meeting in person at a hotel; as described by u/its_onyx, this process was “my first ever time being in an in person relationship and in the sub role. There was [sic] many firsts and even then it felt so natural to be in my role.” Healslutting provides an initial contact point to what eventually becomes “natural,” or solidifies a preference into an overall identity, as with user u/NotaRelnam (2019) in his thread “I didn’t even know there was a name for this until a few days ago.” In recounting the process of being dominated by a woman in his World of Warcraft guild, u/NotaRelNam processes the experience via a series of anecdotes before coming to a statement of self-definition: “And sorry if its hard to follow, I was just trying to get it all down while I still felt telling this to somebody, I’ve never told anybody about it. I don’t really know how common a big sized guy being a Heal Slut is, but I am one.” What was previously a sort of generalized desire is given “a name,” a means through which a larger sexual identity can be confessed—and through that, a set of behavior to follow. Healslutting, in this sense, suggests something akin to what Susanna Paasonen (2018) argues are sexual “spaces of openness and opportunity that unfold in relation to and through an array of norms, scripts and rules,” which end up as “pivotal to the titillating, even engulfing force that sex and sexuality hold in individual fantasies, cultural representations and social arrangements” (547).

How this unfolds, in many ways, becomes a central point of discussion in the HealSluts community, as while the overall name of “healslutting” provides a wide sexual space and point of contact, defining what exactly it is—or the specific game mechanics it should prioritize—is an ongoing topic of debate. A whole page of the r/HealSlut wiki (“What are the roles?”) is devoted to role definition, breaking down the distinction, say, between a HealSlut (“a healer who is usually masochistic and enjoys being verbally abused”) and a TankSlut (“they want to hurt and bleed for their partner”). HealDoms can “control whether their partner lives or dies” through the active denial of using their in-game healing abilities, while a DPSDom (short for “damage per second”) habitually flaunts how good they are at killing opponents while reminding their submissive HealSlut “just how useless they are” in winning the game. Posters on r/HealSluts often tag their preferred gameplay role after their screenname, immediately letting users know what category to associate them with. This also structures posting style as well; HealSlut-tagged users often post in deferential, “cute” language until a Dom arrives in-thread to berate them, while “Switch” users aptly enough flow between discourse roles as they see fit. While users are repeatedly reminded to flow and adapt between identities to see what they enjoy most, a strong connection between in-game practice and forum identity forms over time; how I play is how I post is how I identify.

Thus, new users wanting to join in often ask about in-game practice: how does one healslut properly, so to speak? A thread titled “Hey, new here; need to learn before I play” immediately jumps into the minutiae of HealSlut mechanics, with user u/BecauseOtters28 (2019) asking the forum, “I’m seeing some things that make healsluts look like a catch-all for playing any dynamic in-game. But I’ll also see other things that seem to assert that it is a very specific master/slave dynamic with degradation and humiliation. So, which is it? Or is it just contextualizing gameplay in any way as kinky play?” From there, an extensive discussion emerges between u/BecauseOtters28 and u/RPDit, with u/RPDit (2019) attempting to define a specific version of healslutting in contrast to “the not-yet-named ‘battle slutting’ type of activity,” which they view as any form of gameplay that is given a sexual undertone. For u/RPDit, healslutting “can be pretty much anywhere on the [dominant/submissive] matrix… as long as it’s sexualized and (in my strongly-held opinion) you’re playing a healer,” yet admits “we do seem to still be in the phase of trying to agree on where exactly the borders you’re asking about are.” As their discussion suggests, a role meant to pervert and distort the lines of ordinary gameplay still requires, to some extent, community consensus on what it means and what actions are required within it. Yet the only way to know is to play, a conclusion that u/BecauseOtters28 reaches with a game-related pun: “There’s obviously a disconnect happening somewhere, and the only way to fix that is to grind. :p”

Here attention switches (so to speak) to Overwatch itself, given its role as the game most posted on and discussed within the r/HealSluts community. In an advice thread for a new player mostly used to League of Legends, community moderator u/LeviathansLust (2019) notes that “Overwatch is the best to ease into when it comes to this fetish” (“Any example audio that anyone could share?”), and the vast majority of upvoted posts within the community feature visual depictions of Overwatch characters involved in sexual acts. The game both serves as easily explainable entryway into the HealSlut structure of play and also offers a set of characters and mechanics considered desirable to inhabit. In particular, the primary healer character Mercy—a blonde female with mechanical angel wings typically clad in white and carrying a staff—serves as community icon and central fetishized object. While other characters, such as the mechanized tank robot D.Va or the older sharpshooter Ana, have various discussions and debates surrounding their use in dom/sub Overwatch dynamics, we will predominantly focus on Mercy and the discourse surrounding her use as a way of exploring how the player community has developed rules and expectations for perverse play, as well as the expectations for community discourse.

The first set of mechanics to be perverted directly relate to discourse—specifically, how to let others know you may desire to play in a HealSlut relationship to them without prior establishment of that bond. The question of whether or not other players know or recognize a given individual is healslutting (or any form of eroticized play) is a central one across the r/HealSluts community, given that the act can be undertaken solo or linked to someone else. The wiki directly teases this idea, using hypothetical outraged players as a sort of mocking point of debate: “If you’re witnessing any BDSM or HealSlutting happening in public with more than a few… ‘Vivid’ examples, report them. If it bothers you too much, leave the game” (“Why is this a thing?”) Within Overwatch, there is the direct—and most dangerous option—of announcing one’s intentions via public voice chat, one that runs the active risk of violating Blizzard’s terms of service and being banned from play. In lieu of this, the community has created a sort of coded set to announce via gameplay mechanics that you wish to engage in sex play. Through a mix of pre-designed animations known as “emotes,” icons known as “sprays” that can be placed on the gameplay environment, and voice lines, players can “announce” their intentions to other players aware of the code. As Mercy, for example, the community has defined HealSlut “behavior” as spraying the “Arrow” icon on a wall, using the “Relax” emote (basically resting on the ground, legs tucked under) directly underneath it, and repeatedly calling out the voice line “I’ve got my eye on you.” In response, a dominant D. Va would activate their “Heartbreaker” emote and call out “I play to win.” This would potentially invite both players to take their chat off the public setting and engage in play of their own privately.

In essence, to be a HealSlut in a public Overwatch match leans on coded discourse that builds on the basic principles of roleplaying within Overwatch and feels decidedly similar to epistemological constructs in other sexual subcommunities. Wearing a particular outfit while going to the right bar on the right night shifts into the activation of gestures and gameplay features never “meant” to carry a sexual undertone. If you do not go into the match already partnered—that is, with someone who already knows your perversion—you are forced to rely upon a collection of underground knowledge that may or may not lead to a connection at all. This may lead to more frustration than success; one thread from the community titled “Does anyone else find it difficult to meet other doms/subs in OW?” finds user u/SissyPiggy (2019) bemoaning how rare it is to find that point of connection. Having followed the community protocol, they admit things haven’t been very successful, as “I’ve been trying the rest + spray combo every game for a few days now with a mild account name, although it’s obvious if you’re into the kink. I know it’s a very very small portion of the community into it, but it seems like no one knows what tf I’m doing.” Poster u/majoragor (2019) commiserates, echoing a further danger of coded discourse: “only problem is once someone replies with an emote you can’t really know if that person understand what happened s/he may think s/he’s just emoting which makes things difficult.” Intent may not equal reception and trying to stay below the surface to avoid not being able to play at all means a strong likelihood of missing out. It is not coincidental most of the community’s connections are made outside of game via subreddit threads, within Discord, or as extensions of existing relationships brought into the game itself.

This question of intent, pleasure, and awareness of not explicitly violating Blizzard’s terms of service in the pursuit of sexualized play takes on an even more fascinating dynamic in the growing community discourse surrounding the use of teledildonics. In one thread titled “Theoretically automating the healslut experience” discussing how to directly turn gameplay experience into data to control the vibration function of a dildo, user u/Spice002 (2019) asks if it is possible to link directly to the game’s affect on run-time memory, as “I was thinking of a vibrator that slowly increases strength as you heal someone up, but from what I heard Bliz is very anal about poking around the game (even if you’re just reading it for non-nefarious reasons).” Here, u/Spice002 clearly means “nefarious” in the sense of cheating: gaining an unfair advantage in the match itself. Using the data for a vibrator might be naughty, illicit, perverse, but not nefarious; however, running the risk of incurring Blizzard’s wrath makes the prospect a fraught one. User u/graveknight1 (2019) confirms the suspicion, claiming “They are extremely anal about it. I don’t ever want to make someone at risk of being banned, so I have not tired [sp] to interact with the OW program at all.” As with knowing when and how to emote, knowing exactly how far to push interacting with Overwatch itself as a program reflects the HealSlut community’s attempts to sustain its desired forms of play while remaining, for all intents and purposes, “legal” participants within the game’s rules.

While knowing how far to push Blizzard’s own rules on community engagement and software manipulation is one side of the discussion, there remains the question of proper play and adherence to role expectations among HealSluts themselves. Take, for example, a thread by poster u/LittleZera titled “Good Girl or Bad Girl? Offensive as Mercy” (2019). The poster begins with describing their first-ever “Play of the Game” as Mercy, suggesting the most crucial moment of gameplay in the match. However, rather than being a moment of crucially healing a teammate, u/LittleZera earned their honors by acting out of character: namely, by gunning down two enemies on the other team. On a gameplay level, this could only be seen as a net good; within the game’s algorithms, the act is clearly valued as a positive one, one worth rewarding and given prominence after the match. Yet on a community level, the disruption of Mercy’s role as a submissive HealSlut—one whose sole role is to support the heroic efforts of her attached tank or DPS partner—renders the action far more problematic. The tension between gameplay use and erotic roleplay is so much that u/LittleZera asks the subreddit to weigh on the “right” course of action here: “Does this mean I am a Good Girl for achieving it and protecting my team in another way. Or does it mean I’ve been a Bad Girl because I should’ve healed my team instead? Feeling a little bit conflicted about it.” Note that u/LittleZera does not mention a specific person enforcing these rules on the other team; these expectations are decidedly internalized, governing their perception of play to the point they share the moment of play with others to ensure their feelings are correct.

According to the top up-voted response to their query, the answer is Bad Girl, due to “taking the spotlight from your team. You should’ve been damage boosting your teammates into the potg.” Being “successful” is, within the values of the community, an undesirable outcome, one meant for others to achieve at the submissive “expense” of the HealSlut player. A few posts later, user u/bubbly-blondie (self-tagged as a HealSlut) goes so far as to suggest that a way to avoid this behavior is to literally deactivate access to the mechanic itself, claiming “i felt much better after i got rid of the controls for shooting and hitting! it makes me feel much subbier and makes me have to heal all the time, and i know my dom will protect me <3” (2019). The assigning of key actions, decidedly one without any specific erotic purpose originally by Blizzard, suddenly offers a way to provide disempowered roleplay; by forcing the player to only repeatedly execute one given command, this control scheme now enables a style of playing as Mercy that matches the community expectations of a “good girl.” If the player cannot be trusted to (role)play properly, the game itself can be reconfigured to match the desired sexual resonance.

Returning to the fuzzy boundary of inside and outside the game, the denial of certain actions within Overwatch is meant to inspire certain actions done physically to (or with) the body of the healslut player. In response to a thread asking “What’s the best way to play Mercy in Overwatch?,” user u/codemonkeyjay (2019) offers a glib response that garnered 72 upvotes, an extremely high number for the community: “Equip staff, hold R2. Occasionally push Your Ult button. Find a dick, put it in your mouth, suck. Repeat until the match is completed.” The process is mechanical, endless, always directed outward; since Mercy is only acting upon others to serve them on a gameplay level, the player controlling her should emulate that behavior in person. The obvious gendered powered dynamic here of “finding a dick” as opposed to any other genitals to service is one echoed in a large quantity of r/HealSluts discourse; while a number of community posts fetishize the idea of lesbian character pairings, the idea of what the player desires outside of the game structure habitually returns to a penis being the object of interest. Whether one attached to a person or a surrogate version like a dildo, players of any gender configuration are encouraged to suck, stroke, or insert in tandem with their in-game performance.

The process of tethering in-game play to self-pleasure has formed a variety of what the community dubs “HealSlut games”; as u/LeviathansLust describes in the “official” thread for archiving and linking the games, these are “sexual mini-games that are played while you play video games. Much like challenges, these games include rules, consequences, and in some cases restrictions” (“HealSlut Games MEGATHREAD,” 2019). In this sense, Overwatch becomes a template upon which sexual play can be overlaid and enacted, with the in-game mechanics serving as a general impetus for the larger meta-game bringing about different erotic rules and rewards. It also provides a “single-player” option for what is both a multiplayer game and (in a dom-sub relationship) often a multi-person configuration, with HealSlut games allowing “HealSluts to enjoy themselves even when they’re alone or too shy to include actual doms.” They additionally provide a sort of interior barrier for exploration, opening a space of play to “closet healsluts who don’t want to include anyone in their fetish but still want to enjoy themselves.” Again, even when perverting the rules of the existing game, the r/HealSluts community provides a structure for that perversion, accounting for different motives, needs, and wants while ensuring that the experience follows particular standards of play. By further exploring HealSlut games, we continue to find what Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux (2018) see in metagames more broadly: “the alternate histories of play that always exist outside the dates, dollars, and demographic data that so often define videogames in industry magazines and encyclopedia entries” (9).

In constructing a HealSlut game, the designer typically creates a visual template which establishes a set of required objects, a timeframe, and a character. Mercy, as the primary interest of the community, has the most unique iterations devoted to her. One such example is the “Healslut Game – Oral Edition” (Image 1), designed to specifically tie in-game actions to emulating oral sex. Requiring a dildo (“preferably one as realistic as possible so you can become properly immersed in your position”) and a place to set it, the meta-game begins with selecting Mercy and immediately preparing one’s body for play: “build up some saliva in your mouth, you’ll need it!” Once the round begins, the majority of in-game results link directly to an act done to or with the dildo, ranging from “slap[ping] yourself with the cock” if killed by an enemy Mercy to being unable to activate Mercy’s ultimate move unless “currently slurping on that cock.” This even extends to in-game correspondence, as being thanked by a fellow player results in kissing the dildo. The quality of one’s overall performance determines whether or not the player is allowed to orgasm after the game, with only a 10-vote result earning the chance to climax—“but be sure to clean the cock with your mouth after it gets dirty in your juices.”

Image 1. A r/HealSluts “HealSlut game,” by user u/Kelhsy.

The design of the meta-game, both visually and mechanically, is meant to shift the non-sexualized process and results of Overwatch play into a decidedly erotic, well, outcome. Even the tone of language shifts when moving from gamespace to player body, as a rather dry description of game state—“if you lose the round”—provides the grounds for a much more elaborate result: “take that cock as deep as you can in your throat.” The very nature of the meta-game seems to taunt the expectation that Overwatch is not “meant” to be played this way or is potentially a violation of the terms of service. Consider the “difficulty” settings of the meta-game, with each iterative process a more explicit breaking of the wall between game, player, and body. “Medium” requires the player to voice their performance to their teammates, broadcasting “all [their] pathetic gagging noises,” while “Hard”—in a rather deliberate pun—suggests the player exchange the dildo for something else, as “the game is greatly improved by having a real throbbing cock to slurp on!” Each iteration flaunts the idea of Overwatch as non-sexualized, pushing the player’s out-of-game actions ever closer to the space of virtual play, and there is a striking ambiguity in antecedent in declaring “the game is greatly improved” with a “real throbbing cock.” Does this mean the meta-game, or perhaps Overwatch itself?

For user u/meoowmew, there is no division between the meta-game and the game itself. In a striking thread titled “My guide to healslutting” (2018), u/meoowmew directly addresses the hypothetical player in one of the more explicit rebukes of the magic circle doctrine available:

This is why you are here, slut. Fill their bars. See all those teammates who have their healthbars half-empty? Take your staff, direct the stream of healing into your teammate, and pump their health up to full. Hear that sound? Fwwwwooooosssh. Clink. Fwoooooosh. Clink. Fwoooosh. Even by itself, isn’t it just so satisfying? It’s so easy to do, literally effortless.

I know, right? Fantastic. And you know you’ve always felt this way. You just may have never realized it. That’s why you’ve always loved played Mercy, you little whore. You love having your mouth stuffed with their cocks. Pleasuring them. Non-stop. Over and over. The more you do it the better it feels. To suck their cocks, and to fill bars, all of it is one thing.

There is no outside, no imaginary space between game act and physical want; “all of it is one thing,” an erotic process built into Overwatch from the visual feedback of the UI changing to the sound effects indicating a completed heal. The bars themselves become phallic, “pumped” back to full by the efforts of the player only to fade in size over time and require attention again. This response does not require a backstory provided by Blizzard establishing the sexual preferences of a given character or a visual design that emphasizes particular physical attributes; it is the mechanic itself, the requirement to “fill bars,” that opens up the possibility and expectation of perverse play. In this sense, there is no way to “de-sexualize” Overwatch outside of utterly eliminating the very structures that make the game what it is. Healslutting is not so much a response to a character model or a narrative hook—though those can certainly amplify the response—so much as it is a way of exposing and expressing the latent erotic potential in the power dynamics between players of all games. To return to /u/deathride58, “Any game can become a slut game if you or your dom(s) try hard enough.”

Conclusions: Uniting mechanics and erotics

In “Play and Be Real About It: What Video Games Could Learn from Kink” (2017), game designer and critic Mattie Brice claims that “[i]f we understand play as the exercising of empathy through engaging contexts, and kink as a type of play design that deeply confronts life contexts, then kink practices stand as a stronger model for engaging people with meaningful play than the overly instrumentalized and decontextualized approach to games propagated by contemporary gaming design” (79). The intersection of the erotic and the ludic is not something that corrupts or renders games threatening or dangerous; for Brice, learning from sex play means new kinds of gameplay that are more human, more honest, more open to the context of everyday life. In a striking comparison to regular sexual practice and the act of playing a video game, Brice notes that “we hop into a dark space with each other and keep our fingers crossed that the other person knows what they’re doing” (80). While this might not mean the literal depiction of sex in-game, the question of when “the game” ends and when “real life” begins—and how these are meant to be kept at an active distance—is precisely what helps to create this contextless “dark space” that actually serves to diminish communication and understanding.

The active re-integration of kink practice by healslutting into Overwatch suggests that, for a not-insubstantial number of gamers, this attempt to divide the erotic and the ludic does not lead to inclusiveness as Kaplan suggests. Instead, it pushes the process into the periphery, into the re-reading and reconstruction of play among a metagaming community. The argument that sex in Overwatch only “exists” at the edges of its universe in the game’s short stories, in fan fiction, or in actions like healslutting creates a surreal divide that echoes the lived existence of many people in everyday life: like Ana-qua-Bastet and Soldier 76, your identity doesn’t matter here. The apparent safety for all of the magic circle becomes what Boluk and Lemieux call “the desire for an ahistorical, escapist gamespace” that voids out questions of ideology, embodiment and inquiry (21). The impulse to make play safe for “everyone” ends up, in many ways, reaffirming the primacy of only those identities and practices considered normative and acceptable. Similarly, it should not be “up” to those in underrepresented communities to create spaces for themselves to be seen and acknowledged. This simply shifts the requirement for labor back on those already unseen, while the existing model of storytelling and mechanical construction stays largely unchanged by the most popular and widespread producers.

This reinscription of normative identities and attitudes can be seen in the wealth of research on toxic gaming culture examining the links between how gender and sexuality are performed and engaged within and outside of the game space. Despite developers’ claims to creating an egalitarian gamespace through greater representation in a character roster or paratextual fiction, research on player imaginaries and stereotypes from Ruotsalainen and Friman (2018), Consalvo (2012), Taylor (2012), and Paul (2018) demonstrate that player performances within these gamespaces are both informed by and re-enact many of the problematic narratives surrounding gender and sexuality beyond the game space. In this way, then, we might read healslutting as an act of rebelling, not just against developers, but also against the normative performances and narratives that the player community weaves into the dominant “lexicon of play” in a game like Overwatch. The healslut community brings to light the ways in which games have always been queer and non-normative despite how broader communities (and even developers) attempt to cast both their spaces and play.

This is not to say that Blizzard should integrate healslutting into gameplay proper, or turn things like erotic play into monetized emotes and thus simply transform a subversive act of play into a new line of profit. But there is a space somewhere between, an acknowledgement of the existence of sex and sexuality in the digital realm, that provides opportunity while refusing tokenism. In Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture, Adrienne Shaw argues that “diversity is not the result of demand by audiences but the social responsibility of media producers” (225). It is not because players “want” diversity, but because it should and can be done to begin with; only through this active process can the “assumed normative categories of male, white, and heterosexual” be removed from their status as “default” (225). Making only a token gesture to Soldier 76’s gay past in a text deliberately left at the game’s periphery does not provide the “diverse” space that Kaplan claims.



All links verified 30.10.2019.


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1–2/2019 WiderScreen 22 (1–2)

On the Importance of Queer Romances – Role-play as Exploration and Performance of Sexuality

analog game, digital game, queer, role-play, role-playing games, romance, RPG, sexuality

Tanja Sihvonen
tanja.sihvonen [a] uwasa.fi
Communication Studies
University of Vaasa

Jaakko Stenros
jaakko.stenros [a] tuni.fi
University Lecturer
Game Research Lab
Tampere University

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Sihvonen, Tanja, and Jaakko Stenros. 2019. ”On the Importance of Queer Romances – Role-play as Exploration and Performance of Sexuality”. WiderScreen 22 (1-2). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2019-1-2/on-the-importance-of-queer-romances-role-play-as-exploration-and-performance-of-sexuality/

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This article investigates various kinds of analog and digital role-playing games (RPG) from the perspective of queer romance. We are interested in finding out how ‘queer’ appears in the composition of role-playing games through analysing players’ explorations and performances, as well as the options for romance in these games. We will look into a variety of role-playing games as research material in this study, from non-digital play – such as traditional tabletop role-playing games to live action role-play, or larp – to single-player digital RPGs. We ask how queerness affects the options for romance, whether localised in an event or in the composition of a single character, and what kind of exploration it serves. Is queerness to be found in the romance mechanic, or crunch, of RPGs, or is it part of the fluff: the setting and character descriptions? This article’s orientation is theoretical, and the main reference material here comes from RPG studies as well as queer game studies.


I didn’t design my character to be gay, but then it’s never really a choice, and when I realized this I actually felt as if he’d come out to me, his creator. I was excited. (Rougeau 2015)

In 2014, a non-player character called Dorian Pavus was introduced in Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare, 2014). Although this companion mage was not the first homosexual in a digital role-playing game (RPG), his introduction sparked considerable controversy on social media (Giant Bomb 2015; Grill 2014; Makuch 2014). For many, his presence marked a turning point for openly and ‘legitimately’ gay digital game characters. For instance, Kate Gray (2015) explains what the heartbreak felt like when her female avatar’s ‘boyfriend’ in the game, Dorian, came out to her. Similarly, Mike Rougeau’s (2015) player character Herald of Andraste turned out to be gay when he met Dorian, ‘Mr. Right’ for him, in the gameworld. The introduction of Dorian Pavus was a landmark moment in the history of digital role-playing games in the sense that his unapologetic gayness is disclosed to the player only when certain interactions have – or indeed, have not – taken place in the game. In other words, Dorian Pavus has not been marked as queer through representation, but through his (and the game player’s) actions.

The case of Dorian Pavus demonstrates that digital non-player characters (NPCs) can have lives of their own, lives that does not necessarily comply with the goals and ambitions of the player character and/or the player. Pavus has also been considered worthy of attention in games research (e.g. Østby 2017; Pelurson 2018). What lies at the heart of his case is a clash between players’ expectations and the game’s character design – a clash that opens up interesting viewpoints to the inner life of avatars, and the possibilities for role-playing them. Another crucial context for approaching this clash is an analysis through social interaction. It seems that confronting these kinds of deep, unexpected experiences in digital games requires a level of maturity from players that is not always a given in a mainstream gamer culture characterised by misogyny and homophobia (see Condis 2015). It is rarer for non-digital RPG player characters to act in ways that are surprising or discordant with player expectation, but such game mechanics do exist; in Monsterhearts (2012), for example, players are not in control of the infatuations of their characters (see Sihvonen & Stenros 2019).

Figure 1. A screenshot from a fan-made video celebrating a romance between the player’s elf character and Dorian Pavus from Dragon Age: Inquisition (El Doriango 2015).

This article takes the perspective of queer social interaction as a starting point to analyse how players of various kinds of role-playing games utilise the ‘magic circle’ of the game to explore romantic and amorous interactions, as well as questions of gender identity and sexuality. We also discuss instances where the game confounds its unsuspecting players, such as in the example above, by confronting them with unforeseen content. In this text, we ask how queerness appears in role-playing games: How does it affect the options for romance, is it localised in an event or the composition of a single character, what kind of exploration does it serve? Is queer to be found in the romance mechanic, or crunch, of RPGs, or is it part of the fluff: the setting and character descriptions (see Care Boss 2012)?

This article’s orientation is theoretical, and the main reference material here comes from RPG studies as well as queer game studies. We will look into a variety of role-playing games as research material in this study, from non-digital play – such as traditional tabletop role-playing games to live action role-play, or larp – to the multiplicity of digital RPGs. As part of our analytic framework and theory-building we have derived inspiration particularly from Stephen Greer’s (2013) work on the possibilities of ‘playing queer’, as well as Todd Harper’s (2017) reflection on the retroactively gay protagonist in the Mass Effect universe. This analysis is not based on a systematic review of all possible RPGs containing queer elements; rather, we aim to build theory through certain interesting game examples, such as Monsterhearts, Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), Mellan himmel och hav (2003), and the Dragon Age and the Mass Effect series. Our hope is that these observations will have relevance beyond specific genre conventions and lead to interesting insights regarding games, social interaction, and romance in general. This article is part of a larger ongoing research project that documents and makes sense of queer role-playing games, role-playing, and the culture around them.

‘Queer’ in this article is used in a double meaning. It refers to subjects, mechanics, and representation inclusive of LGBTQ identities within games and game culture, and to ways of thinking that simultaneously destabilise and reimagine games and play. The former can be thought through queer as a noun or an adjective, and the latter through queer as a verb. In queer theory, ‘queer’ is mostly seen as a verb (Barker & Scheele 2016). It can serve as a building block for a framework through which it is possible to critically examine the infrastructure that channels the emergence of certain kinds of games, play styles, and players. A vital part of this framework is interrogating and challenging dichotomies that have for a long time structured how games are understood and interpreted (see Shaw & Ruberg 2017, ix–x). Games, play, and game studies can be imagined otherwise, and that process begins with investigations on how to ‘queer’ the structure of games.

Queering can be an act of, for instance, twisting, flipping, and undermining the conventions and normative boundaries that drive patterns of play (Clark 2017, 4). In our quest to study romances in role-playing games, we regard games as systems of pleasure, and play as activities that target between the lines, destabilising the conventions of social interaction. In this context, we define romance as amorous, erotic, or flirtatious interaction between game characters.

Queer theory is very much about interpretation and imagination. That is not enough for us. We cannot ignore ‘queer’ as a noun (“a bunch of queers”) or an adjective (“queer community”) either. We draw not only from queer theory, but also from game studies, a multidisciplinary field combining approaches from humanities, social sciences, and design research. We are interested in games, characters, mechanics, and narratives that have been identified as LGBTQ related. While queer theory is largely opposed to the permanence that ‘identity’ implies and prioritises acts of becoming, we cannot ignore play by and about characters and themes (self)identified as somehow queer. We think that this gap can be bridged if our work is thought of as merely a snapshot at a certain time. It is not only possible but also probable that what we have here identified as queer will be identified differently at a later time.

Therefore ‘queer romances’ can be understood as acts that question the heteronormative binary logic of game characters and the boundaries of their social interaction as well as the principles of role-play in many kinds of RPGs enabling queer play. We treat ‘queer’ as a method that is part of a scientific paradigm – queer game studies – that is necessarily intersectional and concerned with issues of access, visibility, subjecthood, agency, and voice (see Shaw & Ruberg 2017, xvii–xviii). Our ‘queer look’ at games is first cast at tabletop role-playing games, since this is the first context in which modern RPGs took form.

The slow rise of fluff in tabletop role-playing games

The origins of the contemporary genre of role-playing games can be traced to the publication of Dungeons & Dragons in the US (TSR, 1974).[1] The early tabletop role-playing games had little room for romance of any kind. Indeed, the early role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons certainly included, had very little of what would later be known as a setting: information about a fictional world, its inhabitants’ customs, practices, norms, and cultures in the first place (see Appelcline 2014, 19, 73). The published rulebooks, emerging from a tradition of miniature wargames, concentrated on rules, character classes, items such as weapons and magical artefacts, spells, and adversaries. These RPG rulebooks provided scarce resources for building relationships, interpersonal drama, or cultural exploration. However, while the rulebooks obviously give us some idea of the components and building blocks of tabletop games, they do not tell us how the actual play took place.

The kind of role-playing that was understood as exploration of a setting or a character, or a kind of dramatic slice-of-life play, was in the North American vernacular later referred to with the demeaning term fluff. It is the binary pair of crunch. Crunch refers to the rules and mechanics; fluff is the story-related atmospheric detail, background, setting, history, and culture. Designer Emily Care Boss (2012) has described how these terms are used: ‘One common approach to role-playing is to look at rules and mechanics as the skeleton of play, and “fluff” as the details occasionally handed out to keep the bones from sticking out. There is a dismissive quality to fluff.’ In her thesis on geek media and identity, Rachel Yung (2010, 77) defines fluff as ‘creative backstory of RPG characters’, although this definition is much too narrow for our purposes.

We consider the concept of fluff as a fruitful one, as it shifts focus from the structure of the game to the tapestry and atmosphere of play. Fluff is all those things that are unimportant to the system. This is where we find in-character chats, the fashion worn, and any cultural colour that designers (and, in their praxis, the players) have chosen to include in their game. This is also where we often find gender, ethnicity, and appearance of the character – seemingly unimportant variations of the norm that is the basic character. It is tempting to describe this basic character as not infrequently a ‘white able-bodied cisgender straight dude in his late 20s or early 30s’, but in many games all this remains unspoken as even the categories and characteristics of characters are seen as fluff. However, our concept of fluff is not simply a restatement of the question of representation either. Fluff is not just about ‘who is possible’ in the game world, but, we argue, it is the difference between a procedural simulation on one hand, and a role-playing game where the fictional world comes alive on the other. Fluff is all those things that the system does not recognise as meaningful, but the players do. However, the fluff-crunch dichotomy is not a restatement of the friction between authorship and play either, since the designers create not only the crunch but the fluff as well.

In early tabletop role-playing games, cues for queer romance cannot be found in the rules or rulebooks – that is, the crunch of the game. Sexuality and romance of any kind were solidly situated in the realm of fluff. And since there was very little fluff, there was hardly any published LGBTQ content. Queer playing was certainly possible, but accounts of such play have not been found. Still, from Gary Alan Fine’s (1983) account of play practices in the late 1970s we learn that, for example, sexual assault by player characters on non-player characters did happen, showing that players did move beyond the written rules and setting. Generally speaking, published tabletop role-play source books have a very heteronormative history, but subtle hints of queer play can be found. In the more recent editions of RPG source books, LGBTQ characters and themes are more visible and afforded, and the possibility of queer romance is present, although still often subdued.

Even so, we still argue that queer romances have been not only possible, but present in role-playing games from the beginning (see also Ruberg 2019). While direct evidence from play practices is missing, we can find the first mention of a lesbian romance in an early pioneer of creating a vivid and livable world through focusing on fluff. Linguist and author M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) was a trailblazer in setting design and the first fully realised RPG world, Tékumel. The rulebook argues for developing coherent complexes for players to explore, and one of the examples is “The Tomb of Mnekshétra, the Lesbian Mistress of Queen Nayári of the Silken Thighs” (Barker 1975, 102).

In our earlier study of the history of queer representation in the rulebooks of tabletop role-playing games, we argued that prior to the late 1980s ‘early role-playing games silenced queer sexualities completely’ (Stenros & Sihvonen 2015), but in light of the discovery of this passage in Tékumel, we now see this conclusion is no longer accurate. A more nuanced reading we are proposing in this article is that queerness has existed in RPG texts from the beginning, but it took a decade for setting information (and fluff) to gain importance – and another decade for queerness to gain prominence in the settings:

Queers are possible in the fiction [of tabletop role-playing game settings] if the reader pays close attention to the choice of words. There have also been blatant, agenda driven uses of queers, both arguing that queers are an abomination, and ones proclaiming inclusivity and alternativity. More recently, the inclusions of queer sexualities have been more matter-of-fact, described without underlining – unless queerness has somehow been a key theme in the game setting. (Stenros & Sihvonen 2015.)

While romance, and queer romance specifically, is usually part of the fluff, that does not mean that it cannot be part of the crunch. Role-play game systems have had game mechanics for operations such as seduction. Rendering acts of flirtation, romance, and hooking up into a simple check of character attributes and some dice throws may not be very, well, romantic, but it does model some aspects of amorous interactions for the system. Seduction skill can be used, for example, to charm a guard and thus escape a brig.

Tabletop role-playing games where attraction, romance, and relationships are at the core of mechanics also exist, although they are quite rare. Emily Care Boss has created a trilogy of romance games – Breaking the Ice (2005), Shooting the Moon (2007), and Under My Skin (2009) – that are explicitly inclusive of queer romance. They are also part of the indie RPG movement that emphasised the importance of bespoke rules for each game with the credo ‘system does matter’ (Edwards 2004). The already mentioned example of Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts is a game where the player is not in control of who their character is attracted to. In Monsterhearts, the game mechanics, and thus the crunch, can be characterised as queering (Sihvonen & Stenros 2019, 115–116).

Figure 2. Blue Rose (2005) is a romantic fantasy tabletop role-playing game in which homosexual love was created before heterosexual love in the diegetic world.

To sum up, queer role-play has been possible since the beginning regardless of whether there were cues for it or not. LGBTQ fluff content has also existed in tabletop role-playing game source books since at least 1975. Fluff has been derided in the North American RPG culture, but over the years it has gained prominence in published source books – although the ‘core books’ usually concentrate more on crunch than fluff. Queer fluff, especially romantic queer fluff, is still relatively rare, but today some kinds of nods towards queer practices in RPGs are found in popular settings. Queer crunch exists but is rare. During the 1990s, queers and queer romances also started to become more commonplace in analog role-playing game settings. A culmination of this tendency was Blue Rose (2005), a romantic fantasy role-playing game where romances – gay, lesbian, and straight – took center stage (see Fig. 2).

Queer social interactions in live action role-play

Interpersonal relationships and social connections are a central element in larps. While physical surroundings and the actions they afford are undeniably important for larping, the presence of other players provides a particularly significant platform for meaningful actions. In certain larp traditions, such as the Nordic larp tradition on which we are focusing here, these social connections are seen as the most important part. They are valorised (e.g. Fatland & Wingård 1999), theorised (e.g. inter-immersion, see Pohjola 2004), and their creation is supported (e.g. Piancastelli 2019). Indeed, the characters and their personal connections receive much more attention than the creation of the setting, or elaborate rule systems in the design discourse around larp (e.g. Koljonen et al. 2019). While it is possible to view romance as a function of the setting, or as a result of mechanics, in larp it is most commonly seen as interpersonal affordance.

It is enlightening to reflect on this in relation to an early pioneer[2] of queer larp. Mellan himmel och hav (2003, transl. Between Heaven and Sea) was a queer feminist scifi utopia larp created by the Ars Amandi collective and inspired by the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Through its fiction, the larp sought to make visible and question heteronormativity, expectations of monogamy, and the binary gender system. It was set in the far future on an alien planet and featured a human culture where there were two primary genders: morning people and evening people. Neither of these corresponded with contemporary ideas of masculinity or femininity, but were a new mixture created for the larp. New pronouns were also created for them. The core institution of the society was marriage, but a marriage was always between four people – two morning people and two evening people. From the point of view of players, they involved two male players and two female players, so that each player in a marriage would get to play a heterosexual relationship, a homosexual relationship, and a friendship. In addition, the society had a third gender. They would not marry, but acted as spiritual leaders for the community. (Gerge 2004; Tidbeck 2004; Stenros 2010.)

The narrative of this larp revolved around a marriage that would join together young adults from two neighbouring settlements. Sexuality, romance, and amorous interactions were at the core of the larp’s theme, and its designers developed new gender-neutral sex mechanics to help players carry out amorous scenes in a meaningful and comfortable manner (see Wieslander 2004). This was revolutionary at the time. Previously, sex mechanics had not been a site of serious design, nor had there been attempts at infusing such interactions with meaning. The technique used in Mellan himmel och hav was called Ars Amandi, and it worked for straight and gay sex; it was agnostic towards the number of participants, it did not assume that one participant was active and the other one passive, and most importantly, it was not played for laughs (see Fig. 3) (see also Stenros 2013).

Figure 3. A demonstration of the Ars Amandi technique from the workshop that preceded the Danish larp Totem (2007). Photograph by Peter Munthe-Kaas.

In Mellan himmel och hav, both the mechanics and the setting – crunch and fluff – supported the portrayal of queer romances, foregrounding such themes as bisexuality and polygamy. However, the larp also went one step further and encouraged players to get comfortable with one another during two workshop weekends that preceded the actual larp play (multiple separate workshops were and are very uncommon). During the workshops, players participated in creating the world, developed their characters and the interpersonal relationships, and discussed the queer feminist ideology of the larp. Fostering interpersonal affordances was taken seriously; the participants thought of themselves as an ensemble, and other people in the larp scene half-jokingly called them a ‘cult’ (see Stenros 2010).

Mellan himmel och hav is a unique example of bespoke larp design, where queerness is embedded in the design and mechanics of play. It was exceptional at the time, and although there have been other larps that have followed in its footsteps and the sex mechanics developed for it have spread to other larps and larp traditions, such an inclusive approach to queer romances is still far from commonplace in live-action role-play.

In general, queer romances in larp have received very little scholarly attention. Our understanding of larp practices is largely based on player accounts and secondhand information sources, such as post-play documentation, which presents challenges to research. For instance, cues for queer interaction can be detected in the source material of larps but there may be no evidence of such instances during play. On the other hand, as players are able to develop their characters relatively freely (at least in some traditions of larp), there may be queer aspects or attributes to the embodied characters that the persons organising or documenting the larp are not aware of. However, in the para-academic tradition surrounding Nordic larp, there are a few illuminating pieces we can draw from. Of particular interest in this regard is Eleanor Saitta and Sebastian F. K. Svegaard’s (2019) chapter ‘Designing for Queer and Trans Players’:

While abuse and violence that recreate real-world oppression are often thought of first in this context [of challenges in designing for queer and trans players], romantic or erotic play is also of specific concern. It only occurs in relation to another player, and requires vulnerability from both players. When players can’t find others to play with, or when there’s an imbalance in the amount of vulnerability in the situation, play becomes less accessible. This happens for players who aren’t conventionally pretty, for older women, and for minorities. Queer and trans players in particular often find themselves in a separate, disconnected larp, where they struggle to understand who is interested in play. (Saitta & Svegaard 2019, 175.)

In this text, Saitta & Svegaard discuss how queer experiences in fictional (or fictionalised historical) contexts are easily erased or rendered unintelligible, even by initiatives that are thought of as inclusive and queer-friendly by the designers. An example of such a tactic would be the removal of oppression, homophobia, and transphobia from the gameworld. While it is meant well, much of queer and trans history becomes nonsensical if such structures are removed during the design process. Similarly, gender-neutral casting, sometimes seen as a way to ensure that, for example, leadership positions do not default to male characters, or to introduce queer relationships organically (an existing relationship between two characters can be straight or queer based on the genders of the players cast in the roles) may seem inclusive at first glance, but it erases queer lived experience in the long run. Gender-neutral casting erases any specificity there can be in a queer (or straight) relationship on the level of the design. In such larps, every romance runs the risk of becoming interchangeable and non-specific, although obviously players can in practice queer any relationship.

Similarly, Saitta & Svegaard (2019) point out that difference is removed when straight players who portray queer relationships are not given support through the design. There are also asymmetric power relations involved in players’ choices of playing a queer relationship: A straight male player may be socially rewarded for his ‘courage’ to play a queer character, even if the portrayal is tone-deaf, whereas a queer player can be expected to tone down passion and desire in their performances so as not to elicit discomfort in non-queer players. Furthermore, since larp is embodied interaction between players, the body of the player cannot be ignored. Saitta & Svegaard write about trans bodies (see also Koski 2016), and how overt or subtle reactions of cisgender players’ perceptions of such bodies influence romantic larp play:

The question of player reaction is complicated because the body of a trans player may not look like the body of their character. Creating a new history for a player’s trans body within the fiction, often one that would carry its own violence, is both hard work and often painful. Because designers can rarely help here, many trans players choose to play cis characters. (Saitta & Svegaard 2019, 180.)

To conclude this section, larps with queer romance exist, but are often difficult to document. Sometimes such romances are initiated by players in accordance with the fictional world, or in a vacuum of no fictional support, or even in conflict with the fiction. Sometimes queer romances are a part of the intended design, supported by setting design, theme, character design, larp mechanics, workshops, and communication around larp. Examples of the latter, in the Nordic tradition following Mellan himmel och hav, include exploration of the coming of the HIV-AIDS epidemic to New York in Just a Little Lovin’ (2011-, see Paisley 2016), and Forbidden History (2018, no written documentation exists yet), a stylised indulgence in the public, the private, and the occult in a privileged educational institution. Furthermore, in addition to these event-style larps, there is an emerging tradition of easy-to-set-up chamber larps. Larps touching on queer themes and romance can be found from collections such as #Feminism (Bushyager, Stark & Westerling, 2016), Queer Gaymes (Bryk & Granger, 2016), and Prism: Larp Scenario Anthology Vol. 1: Queer (Milewski & Wicher, 2018).

It is against this growing number of larps consciously created for queer and trans players that the importance of Saitta & Svegaard’s piece (2019) becomes apparent. In a social form of expression, queer romance will emerge even if it is not encouraged, but if the further goal is to be inclusive of queer and trans players, conscious design work is required.

Daydreaming in single-player digital RPGs

In principle, role-play is a social activity where every player performing a role is seen to only make sense in the context of other players (a more general term for this is socio-dramatic play, see Burghardt 2005) and possibly a game master also engaged in the same activity. This is obvious in tabletop and larp, but also in digital role-playing such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, play-by-post role-playing games, and other mediated social role-play events.

Research on multiplayer online games and play has dominated the field of game studies, and thus it is not surprising that also studies of queerness and games have largely focused on analyses of virtual worlds and mediated interactions between players (see Shaw & Ruberg 2017, xiv). On the other hand, play-by-post roleplaying, i.e. turn-based structured role-playing via an online platform, where the focus is on storytelling through prose (and possibly images), has only very recently garnered any scholarly attention (e.g. Dorey 2017; Stang 2017; Zalka 2019). Online multiplayer role-playing games have the most varied possibilities for queer romances, since they are able to bring together dispersed players with similar interests and have structures that enable the incorporation of player-created content. Among them, there is also a growing number of games that do provide cues for queer play.

However, in this article we concentrate on the kind of digital role-play that is distinct and restricted in order to get a grasp of how these games can be used for the players’ explorative and performative purposes. Although there are some other forms of organised solo role-play, single-player digital role-playing games are the most widespread and successful form. Since they are private, small-scale, and customisable (up to a point), they are likely to act as safer environments for the kind of personal and intimate role-play that queer romance necessitates. Socio-dramatic play, and social play in general, is inherently limiting because every player needs to take other players into account, and adjust their character’s behaviour and their own play style accordingly – some of the problems associated with these limitations were discussed in the previous chapter. Obviously, the player does not leave behind their cultural assumptions (see Ludic Hermeneutic Circle in Sicart 2009, 117–119) as they begin playing, but the experience can be solitary and as private as any digitally technology enabled activity can be today.

It is therefore important to note that single-player role-playing is a substantially different sub-category of role-play where the player performs the role only to themself and possibly a computer system. In single-player digital role-playing games, or SPDRPGs, the player usually has a player character that can be modified to the player’s liking and that the player finds themself bonding with. Encountering or gradually developing a romantic relationship between the player character and an AI-controlled non-player character in the gameworld can be an eye-opening performative experience, and an essential narrative path in the experiment of playing certain single-player RPGs.

BioWare is a Canadian game studio that has gained a reputation for creating single-player RPGs that allow for romantic and sexual same-sex situations to emerge within these complex artificial worlds. With its focus on exploring the possibilities of complex character design, non-normative sexual orientations, meaningful relationships, and other emotionally charged topics, it is not surprising that BioWare’s games have been researched extensively over the past years (e.g. Dutton, Consalvo & Harper 2011; Hassan 2017; Jørgensen 2010; Voorhees et al. 2012). We regard especially its serial Mass Effect (ME) and Dragon Age (DA) franchises among the most interesting high-profile games that feature LGBTQ interaction options. In this section, we are going to use them as examples in our analysis of the conditions in which queer romances are possible in SPDRPGs.

Even though both romance (Kelly 2015; Waern 2011) and queerness (Condis 2015; Krobová et al. 2015) have been studied in relation to BioWare titles, the role-playing aspects of queer romances for a single player have not yet been fully investigated, in spite of their importance in these games. Both ME and DA have powerful romantic options that have garnered exceptional enthusiasm among game scholars (Greer 2013; Reiss 2014; Østby 2016; Schröder 2008). Romantic narratives in these games are fundamentally based on player agency, as every player can choose whether they want to engage in romance, which NPC to approach, and also, to some extent, how the romance will develop and end. In these games romance is an essential part of the gameplay mechanic (Waern 2011, 240) and thus the crunch for the player. In all of BioWare’s games, queer content is primarily offered and activated through optional romantic relationships that the player character can pursue with non-player characters (Østby 2016; Krobová et al. 2015). According to David Gaider (2013), former lead writer at the studio, around a quarter of BioWare game players invoke same-sex romance options.

Dragon Age is situated in the magical world of Thedas, where the player gets involved in solving cultural and political issues in addition to fighting off evil and saving the world. Thedas is largely populated by human-resembling races, and their attitudes towards sexuality and gender are generally more liberal and experimental than in many other games, including Mass Effect (Østby 2016, 257–258). In Dragon Age, the romance options are presented to the player via their party members, and they depend on the race, social status, and gender of the player character as well as the gender and orientation of the romanceable non-player character.

In Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare, 2009), there are four possible romantic interests for the player character, of which two allow for heterosexual relationships to emerge, and two result in bisexual relationships (Waern 2011). In Dragon Age II (BioWare, 2011), out of the four possible ones, the primary romantic option for a gay male player character is the mage Anders, with whom the romance is integral to the main narrative of the game (Krobová et al. 2015). In Dragon Age: Inquisition, romance options have doubled, and the associated narrative paths have been considerably redefined – as the element of surprise connected to its earlier described character Dorian Pavus demonstrates (Østby 2016, 255–256). Romance in each of these instalments can develop in complex and unpredictable ways.

Mass Effect consists of (so far) four single-player, sci-fi themed role-playing games that are also third-person shooters. Its central narrative, set in year 2183, revolves around the discovery of ancient alien technology that has enabled interstellar travel and the encountering of alien races. The customisable but pre-fixed player character of the game is Commander Shepard, who discovers a machine race called Reapers who could doom the entire galaxy into mass extinction. In the world of ME, the way the personal narrative path turns out for Shepard alters the player’s game experience in considerable ways. This configuration begins with the player choosing some basic elements of Shepard’s socio-cultural background and service history as well as his or her gender (Voorhees 2012, 265).

The main component of role-play in both Dragon Age and Mass Effect is a dialogue wheel, a menu-based system that the player uses to interact with her environment and NPCs and steer the progression of the game’s narrative. Player choices also indirectly shape the gameworld, the player character, and the relationships between her/him and the NPCs. Out of these relationships, the options for romance are the most significant in terms of the gameplay and consecutive narrative content, and they are also essential in managing the chosen role and character of Shepard, thus allowing romance to become an essential part of crunch as well as fluff in these games. The weight of the decision on relationships is accentuated as the player can only be romantically involved with one NPC in each of the series’ instalments (in a single play-through). Furthermore, the romantic options are structurally different as they feature varying lifecycles, and some are more tightly woven into the narrative than others. In this way, the options for (queer) romance are also part of the crunch, or the game structure and rules, in both DA and ME.

Romantic partnerships may also extend beyond one instalment of the game to the next, if the player so wishes. For example, in Mass Effect 2 (BioWare, 2010), none of the romantic partner options from the first game are in the spaceship’s crew, so the player can choose to romance another character in the game, or to remain faithful to the first partner. In Mass Effect 3 (BioWare, 2012), the player can revive either of these romances through a string of decisions, or (as a male Shepard) approach the male soldier Kaidan Alenko and have a homosexual relationship with him (see Krobová et al. 2015). In this way, the ‘standard’ straight white cisgender male John Shepard is also employed in queer play.

Figure 4. A screenshot from a fan-made video portraying the love story between Shepard and Kaidan Alenko (Hydronami 2012).

Todd Harper (2017) reports playing ClosetShep, a player interpretation where the male Shepard is a closeted gay man, who is finally able to open up romantically in the third game; for him, this was a plausible explanation as to why Shepard could only have a gay romance in the third installment of the series. His love interest, Kaidan Alenko, can also be read as a closeted gay character, since he had appeared in all previous ME games without being positioned as homosexual. Harper (2017, 127) explains: “I was retroactively explaining, in narrative form, a primarily mechanical innovation that only manifested in the final game of the series”. The first two Mass Effects game were not built to examine what it feels like to be a closeted gay man and how losing oneself in one’s work is a way to cope with the feelings of isolation and loneliness that it entails. Yet this is what Harper found in his pretend play with the Mass Effect artefacts. The absence of romance in the first two parts became meaningful with the possibility of a romance later.

It is likely that the narrative decision-making as an RPG strategy engages the player emotionally in the game and in its characters’ destinies, since it creates a sense of the player being responsible for their own gameworld. This increased emotional engagement can be achieved by featuring in-game decisions that have obvious and lasting consequences in a game or throughout the whole series (Waern 2011). In addition to focusing on the crunch that allows for queer play, there are many ways for the player to alter the fluff in these games in order to achieve queer romantic options. While ClosetShep is an example of post-play narrative modding (see Layne & Blackmon 2013), many single-player games also encourage the production and distribution of user-created modifications through which queer romance can be attainable in surprising and interesting ways.

For instance, Shepard’s gender can be changed without touching any of the other attributes in the save game mode using the simplest save game editing, thus making it possible for the player character to initiate a romance with another crew member outside of their available options. Save game editing has apparently been quite popular with players wanting to experience romantic relationships normally excluded from their player character’s gender (see Okogawa 2011, sections [10–11]). Fan forums and modding sites on the internet abound with aesthetic fluff mods that alter the appearances and textures of game characters as well as change the settings and levels of play. Another interesting way of modding single-player digital RPGs is the creation and maintenance of NPCs and their narrative paths that differ from the original game. Changing the characters and their surroundings in SPDRPGs is part of modifying the fluff of these games, whereas reconfiguring game code to allow for queer romances that actually have an effect on the gameplay itself is part of the crunch and thus, in many ways, more difficult (see Sihvonen 2019).

As we have seen in this brief overview, both of these modification styles can be an important part of the experience of playing single-player digital RPGs. Single-playing role-playing, when played without a digital game artefact, is akin to daydreaming or solitary play with toys. The digital single-player game provides a narrative context, a responsive system, and the kind of curated focus that can be absent in the more baroque and digressive social role-playing games. This brings about meaningful structure to the daydreaming, but also limits play, thus creating a demand for modding. In social role-playing, we negotiate with other people. In digital single-player role-playing games we cannot negotiate, but need to stick within the possibilities afforded by the game artefact – or tamper with the artefact directly. Single-player digital games are thus private, focused, and restrictive while also providing the player with possibilities for experimentation, innovation, and self-discovery.


We can find queer romance in all kinds of role-playing games, be they digital or non-digital, social or solitary. The earliest cues for queer romance in a commercial role-playing game can be found in the mid-1970s. Player-initiated queer romances are harder to find than cues created by designers, since play is ephemeral, and role-playing game documentation is scarce. While evidence of queer romance in role-playing games is plentiful, the systemic game artefact, be it digital or non-digital, can be limiting by its very nature. The worlds of Mass Effect and Dragon Age are places where the players can, within strict but expanding boundaries, ‘do’ gender in the sense Judith Butler (1990) has talked about performance. Yet, while the BioWare games offer possibilities for playing gay, lesbian, and bisexual romances, it is obvious that there is not much proprietary queer content available to play with – and even modding the system is unable to transcend it.

Tabletop role-playing games and larps are more co-creative, and thus incorporating queer romance is easier – provided that fellow players are open to such ideas. However, since these games are social, playing a romance requires more than one person who is willing to commit to the performance. As Saitta and Svegaard (2019) argue relating to larp, existing social structures and norms may prevent queer romances from emerging in practice, even if the design does provide a space for it, if such choices are not actively encouraged and supported by the design.

In this article we have woven together ideas and insights from different kinds of role-playing games. While these games are different, and indeed the methods in which we have interrogated them are also necessarily different, it is our hope that with the duals connecting threads of role-play and queer romance enable us to say something about perfoming amorous interactions as fictional selves and acting ‘as if’ someone else in shared storyworlds.

Players seeking to queer role-playing games are operating within the local social norms that are constructed knowingly and unknowingly with co-players. They operate within the socially upheld game rules that usually draw from an explicit rule set, and in digital games they also operate within the laws of the code in their software (which can be modded). Tabletop, larp, and single-player digital RPGs all have different configurations of these aspects. Traditionally, tabletop role-playing games are most bound by the published source books that lay the foundation for the shared world. Larps are often not based on published rule systems, but can have bespoke systems. Yet larps usually feature a larger player base, which means that the social norms are harder to negotiate. In single-player digital RPGs there are no co-players, but the digital artefact comes with hard limits.

Queer practices, or even identities, do not boil down to just romance. The queer is in the gap between the cues provided by the artefact and the player’s response (see Sihvonen & Stenros 2018). It is in the invitations to play, to extrapolate, and to engage in transgressive readings. In the fluff of various kinds of RPGs, we find both explicit cues for queering and vague hints that can encourage queer readings and practices. While a queer reading certainly can be constructed with very little support in the text, having such support can be extremely meaningful as the opening quote of this article shows. Furthermore, if we consider the fact that 24 percent of the players of BioWare’s games have chosen to engage same-sex romance options (Gaider 2013), we can conclude that it is not only the queer-identified players looking for LGBTQ representation that are significant – it is also the implicit and explicit affordances of these single-player RPGs that allow for all kinds of queer deeds and performances to emerge in real life, on private screens, and in various online contexts.

Even if there are no cues for queer romance, queer play is obviously still possible. However, cues for queer play make it not just possible, but likely and practical. And here we need to return to our dual meaning of ‘queer’. In a sense, queering role-playing games is best when there are few or no cues present. That is when we can truly twist, flip, and undermine the conventions and norms. Can any mechanic already included in a game ever be ‘queer’ in this sense? Even if it is in the doing of these mechanics that queering happens, is the player only reconstructing something that is already in the text (i.e. the rule system)? However, whereas queer readings go against the grain of the text, in queer social play the queering can happen either in relation to larger norms and conventions, or against the local conventions of the (sometimes very) small group of co-players. Queer (adjective) content is still transgressive in many game cultures at the time of writing, even if it is only re-presenting something someone else imagined.

In Mass Effect and Dragon Age, queer romances are avoidable, as the player needs to opt in to participate in them. Queer, or LGBTQ, play is not thrust upon all players. Yet, when queer romance is in the crunch, in the system of the game, it becomes unavoidable, like in Monsterhearts or Mellan himmel och hav. The history of tabletop role-playing game source books and the slowness in starting to discuss setting and culture show that romance of any kind has been considered peripheral. Thus, it is hardly surprising that moving not only romance, but queer romance into the centre of a game is a rare act, and an act we argue is queer, at least at the time of writing. Games with queer crunch are queer in the sense that they disrupt norms, make alternatives visible, and confront players’ expectations. Games with opt-in queer fluff tend to have heteronormative and sexist baselines, but they are queer in the sense that they are fluid, offering the player the possibility to decide how they want to do or perform their gender and sexuality on that day. We need queering to see and imagine the romantic possibilities that lie beyond the horizon or in the shadows. Even so, in systems of shared storytelling it is not enough to do those acts alone; they need to be visible and legible enough for others to recognise them. And for this we need both crunch and fluff to include cues for queer play.


Special thanks to James Lórien MacDonald, Juhana Pettersson, and Evan Torner.


All links verified 24.10.2019.


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[1]‘Role-playing game’ (or RPG) as a term has multiple meanings. The term is used to refer to commercial game types (such as tabletop role-playing games) and to genres of digital games (single player digital role-playing games). While these types have similarities, such as certain game mechanics, an importance of game characters, as well as historical similarities, they are nonetheless often treated as separate. Our use of ’role-playing game’ aligns with its use in game studies (e.g. Zagal & Deterding 2018), where the term is seen as an umbrella for games and playing styles that have been called role-playing games at some time, tracing the genealogy of the term in various historical and cultural contexts, and trying to take its variations and specifications into account regardless whether they are digital or non-digital, or commercial or non-commercial.

[2] With clearly productised role-playing games, be they tabletop RPG handbooks or published single player digital RPGs, it is possible to track down starting-points and ‘firsts’. With larps that are ephemeral by nature and rarely published in any form, such claims would be much more contested.

3/2018 WiderScreen 21 (3)

On the Dark Side of Lifestyle Blogging – The Case of Negative Anonyms

blog elicitation, lifestyle blogging, negative anonyms, online ethnography

Riitta Hänninen
riitta.j.hanninen [a] jyu.fi
Post-Doctoral Researcher
Department of History and Ethnology
University of Jyväskylä

Post-Doctoral Researcher
Centre of Excellence in Research on Ageing and Care (CoE AgeCare)
Academy of Finland

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Hänninen, Riitta. 2018. ”On the Dark Side of Lifestyle Blogging – The Case of Negative Anonyms”. WiderScreen 21 (3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2018-3/on-the-dark-side-of-lifestyle-blogging-the-case-of-negative-anonyms/

Printable PDF version

The social reciprocity between bloggers and their readers included in lifestyle blogs is inspired by casual exchange of information, opinions, and emotional support. Despite the obvious positive connotations, the world of lifestyle blogging also has a darker side to it. A negative anonym is recognized by bloggers as a reader who comments behind a pseudonym and distributes critical or abusive comments targeted against bloggers’ physical appearance, personality, life choices, or commercial collaborations. Bloggers are often regarded as influencers of social media. In this study, however, the perspective is reversed as I explore some of the ways bloggers are influenced by their readers.

Lifestyle bloggers value their readers as one of the most important aspects of blogging, while at the same time they hold their personal lives precious and exercise a strict regime on their privacy (Nardi et al. 2004; cf. Viégas 2005). By controlling the disclosure of information, bloggers strive to determine where to draw the boundary between themselves and others – private and public. (McCullagh 2008, 12; cf. Sinanan et al. 2014.) My analysis of recurring critical comments and the strategies employed by Finnish bloggers to manage these comments is based on the idea of blogs as ethical spaces, where, according to Lövheim (2011a; cf. Harris 2008), bloggers negotiate moral issues by using new technologies in order to handle the shifting boundaries and norms in contemporary Western society.

This study focuses on the impact negative anonyms[1] have in the Finnish blogosphere. I concentrate especially on the multiple ways lifestyle bloggers experience readers’ comments and ask what is criticized by the negative anonyms who comment on blogs. I also discuss the recurring topics that negative anonyms rely on in their criticism, according to bloggers. Secondly, I am interested in the consequences of critical comments for the Finnish blogging scene: in this context, I focus on the strategies lifestyle bloggers employ to manage critical comments as well as the practices through which negative anonyms consequently affect the basic social structures of the online world of blogging in general. The contextual thematic analysis of the research is based on online ethnography, including extended online observation, 8 thematic interviews, and 17 blog elicitation interviews (BEI).

The relationship between bloggers and their readers

Lifestyle blogs[2] delight people and bring positive things into their lives, yet in anthropological terms, sociality reflects the whole variety of human existence including the positive and negative aspects of being together. The drawback of online communality in the blogging world is that not all followers in social media fall into the majority of benevolent readers. Similar accounts can also be found in other countries, such as Sweden (Lövheim 2011b), Singapore (Abidin 2013) as well as Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Eckert 2017), suggesting that the existence of negative anonyms often associated with trolling[3] and online bullying[4] has a transnational quality to it. The idea of putting oneself out there involves risks especially for female entrepreneurs in digital spaces, where they submit themselves to public scrutiny (Duffy & Pruchniewska 2017, 855).

According to Shao (2009), the majority of user-generated media followers do not engage in active conversation in blogs or comment on them at all. This argument concurs with Google Analytics, which is regularly used by the bloggers participating in this research to get information about their readers. As Viégas’ (2005; cf. Östman 2013) survey from the mid 2000s, which marks the beginning of lifestyle blogging at large, indicates, the occurrence of personal topics was positively and significantly correlated (r = .0.3, p < 0.01) with how often bloggers “got in trouble” with their readers. In the light of my research data, the issue of refraining from personal accounts that are too intimate to share is still as current in the Finnish blogosphere as it was over fifteen years ago.

The relationship between bloggers and their readers has been widely studied in the contexts of, for example, authenticity and trust (Abidin & Thompson 2012; boyd 2006; Colucci & Cho 2014; Chai & Minkyun 2010; McRae 2017), the debate over private and public (Livingston 2008; McCullagh 2008; Sinanan et al. 2014; Talvitie-Lamberg 2014), and commercialization of the blogging world (Herring et al. 2005; Abidin 2013; Hänninen 2015), all of which challenge the relationship between bloggers and their readers and predispose lifestyle blogging to the emergence of negative anonyms.

Less attention, however, has been paid to the actual focus of the criticism or the everyday life strategies bloggers employ in order to maintain their personal boundaries. Boyd (2006; Abidin 2013) argues that the conflict between bloggers and their readers is based on a discontinuity, where in the bloggers’ view blogs are in fact a corporeal extension of the self, while the readers seem to agree that it is only a place to engage in conversation. According to Lövheim (2011b; cf. Rettberg 2014), the decision to protect one’s private life is clearly set against the expectation that popularity requires sharing personal stuff with readers, and that establishing boundaries implies the risk of losing this position.

The cultural norms of the blogging community are continuously negotiated and co-created between bloggers and readers. In practice, this means that bloggers’ income depends on sustaining the illusion of intimacy, or “perceived interconnectedness”, with people they may not normally associate with, and that this relationship can be precarious and prone to stress. (Abidin 2013; cf. Bortree 2005; cf. Abidin & Thompson 2012.)

Of course, not all critical commenting falls into the category of negative anonyms, nor does disagreement per se constitute bullying. In this analysis, distinguishing constructive critique from abuse is based on the experiences of and connotations made by individual bloggers since the denotations of comments written by negative anonyms are often unspoken and rarely unambiguous (cf. Hinduja & Patchin 2008). The original connotations of a given negative comment are not easily deciphered even by the bloggers themselves. However, in order to describe the recurring topics negative anonyms rely on in their criticism and the consequences critique has for the Finnish blogging scene, the lifestyle bloggers’ point of view is central in this analysis.

Online observation and blog elicitation interview

The research data consists of extended online observation and 25 interviews conducted in autumn 2014 (8), autumn 2015 (3), and autumn 2017 (14) within the Finnish blogosphere. The extended online observation for this study was carried out between June 2017 and January 2018. Following the overall demographics of the world of lifestyle blogs, the majority of interviewees are girls and women, but the research data also includes two male bloggers. The age of the randomly chosen bloggers writing in both Finnish and English varies from 18 to 50. Geographically, the bloggers represent the whole of Finland, including expatriates who do not physically live in Finland[5], but who blog mainly in Finnish and/or under Finnish blog portals.

The bloggers participating in this study reflect the general hierarchy of the blogging world. Established professional and semi-professional bloggers receive more monetary compensation for their blogs and thus have a different take on the commercial side of blogging in comparison to writers who blog only as a hobby and have little or no collaboration at all with the lifestyle industry. As I am constructing an overall view of the relationship between bloggers and their readers in the context of negative anonyms, the focus of the research will be on all three groups of bloggers.

I have been observing the Finnish blogosphere for over ten years, partly as a personal pastime but also as an online ethnographer. During the first leg of my fieldwork in 2014, I studied lifestyle bloggers using a traditional thematic interview (8) and conducted an extended online observation (cf. Hopkins 2016) regarding the blogging world. After the most recent part of my fieldwork observation (June 2017–January 2018), which consisted of reading approximately 50 randomly chosen Finnish lifestyle blogs on a weekly basis (which I consequently still do), I focused particularly on the relationship between lifestyle bloggers and their readers and the idiosyncrasies of this interaction. I was also interested in the early ideal of lifestyle blogs as personal diaries dating back to the mid-2000s and the role the commercialization process plays in the everyday lives of Finnish lifestyle bloggers. In this analysis, extended online observation primarily serves a contextual function triangulating the interview data. Approximately one third of the bloggers/blogs observed for this study have also been interviewed.

After conducting the first 8 thematic interviews in 2014, I soon realized that in order to fully grasp the visual and multi-channelled characteristics of contemporary lifestyle blogging, I should pay more attention to elaborating the thematic interview as a research method and started to develop BEI. New media phenomena such as lifestyle blogs are often based not only on texts and written material but also on a generous amount of visual aids such as photographs and videos, which Uimonen (2013; cf. Kaufmann 2018) describes as the online performance of selfhood being staged in digitally mediated and networked social worlds. In addition to blog posts, BEI is also equipped to dive into the Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Facebook environments used multi-medially by the majority of bloggers.

To apply BEI in practice, I instructed the interviewees to choose 2 to 4 blog posts that they